Top 10 (ish) Best Albums of 2013
It's list time. I'm obsessed with lists, and I start my "Best Albums" list research in January, in a Moleskine designed for that very purpose, LIKE THE GIGANTIC SNOB THAT I AM. It comes from the days when VH1 was all I really cared about, and I used to sit about three inches from the TV waiting to see if "Push" by Matchbox 20 would have the number one spot again (it always did). So anyway, this list isn't just thrown together. I have been listening, rating, and thinking about it since January 14, when I reviewed my first "album up for consideration" of the year -- Yo La Tengo's "Fade." Which didn't even come close to making the cut, by the way.
A disclaimer is important here: I have terrific taste in music, but it's very specific. I like: female singer/ songwriters, pop-but-not-the-kind-they-play-on-the-radio pop, OK-sometimes-radio-pop pop, trad jazz (but not new releases, so you'll see that those are totally absent here), soul (see my point about trad jazz), hip-hop (I won't say rap, because I actually like a way-more-accessible kind of music, although if you are a person I'm trying to sleep with I will lie and tell you otherwise), and anything that sounds like it's being sung through a beard backed up by a rhythm section that is basically just a bunch of people clapping (the kids call this "folk," which makes my mother depressed).
Now that that's out of the way, here are some bands that released albums this year that were EXCELLENT but didn't make the cut for one reason or another. (This is very hard for my heart to handle, but there can only be ten top albums. Or, in this year's case, eleven. You'll see.): Tegan and Sarah, Waxahatchee, Phosphorescent, Youth Lagoon, the Shout Out Louds, STRFKR, Born Ruffians, Paper Bird, Vampire Weekend, Golden Suits, CHVRCHES, Connections, Danny Brown, Pusha-T, The Blow, Jaz-Z, Spirits of the Red City, Mutual Benefit, M.I.A., and BOY. Since I know all those guys read my personal blog: I'm sorry, guys.
Without further ado.
10: TIE - Dislosure: "Settle": This is the kind of music that you can put on at a party and invariably someone will go, "Hey, who IS this?" Disclosure are a pair of young producers who happen to be brothers from the UK. They're unbelievably smart at what they do: they find terrific musicians to collaborate with, and then they pump their songs with inescapable beats and perfect drops. It's the kind of music I assume people play a lot at dance clubs -- maybe just this whole album on repeat, actually, because what makes it so incredible is the amazing, unusual texture: each vocalist adds something singular, which keeps listeners interested and guessing. Just to taste: the record features such disparate voices as Jamie Woon, Howard Lawrence, and Friend Fires vocalist Ed MacFarlane. It's a deliciously unexpected record that delights through its careful, determined performances. Since I don't throw parties, I put it on when I'm writing papers about pop culture, and I feel really cool when I do.
WATCH THEM: Disclosure - You & Me
10: TIE - Thao & the Get Down Stay Down: "We The Common": This is Thao's first album with her full band since 2009's "Know Better Learn Faster," and it's better than that album, but it's still not as great and raw and weird and fun as their first album, "We Brave Bee Stings and All." That's OK. She's made an album with whisper-pop queen Mirah since then, and she went on tour with Radiolab, so we can expect some of that high production stuff to rub off on her a little bit. This album is best when Thao is not so aware of the songs -- when she screams and shouts and loses the rhythm a little bit ("Holy Roller" is exceptional, and so is "Human Heart"). The themes on the album are about growing older (surprise, surprise), falling in love and failing (surprise, surprise), and bodies (which actually IS delightfully surprising). The duet with Joanna Newsom ("Kindness Be Conceived") is not the best track here, which makes me continue to think that Thao gets shy when she collaborates. She's best out in front, losing herself with the microphone, while her band chatters behind.
WATCH THEM: Thao & The Get Down Stay Down - We The Common
9 - The Spinto Band: "Cool Cocoon": This album was a surprising pop treasure for me this year, right when I needed something that would operate as a break-up album and a I'm-so-happy-I'm-single album and a let's-just-fucking-jump-in-hay-or-something-that-twenty-somethings-do album. It's really, really listenable, and almost supersaccharine at times, and I found that to be completely refreshing against the dreary, clangy "soundscapes" that made everyone so inexplicably giddy this year. This is pop music with clapping, snapping, five-part harmonies, and just enough smeary, messy, garage rock to make it not too much to bear. It's their cleanest album to date, which is saying a lot for a band that's been around since 1996, but you can tell that they put everything they could into making this album stick together beautifully; it's one of those albums where you can taste the hard work if you try, and it's worth the careful listen. Also, Nick Krill's voice is SUMPTUOUS. That's the only word for it. I want to eat it with a spoon.
WATCH THEM: The Spinto Band - "Shake It Off"
8. Valerie June - "Pushin' Against A Stone": When I first heard "Somebody to Love" off this album, I felt like my heart was going to explode. I have never heard a more delicately perfect song in my entire life, and stacked up against the rest of the haul on this beautiful record, it is designed to make you fall all over yourself; tuning out the rest of the world until it's over. Valerie June is an incredible musician who knows just how to mix the holy with the sinful; the ancient with the new. Her voice sounds like it should belong to a jazz singer in the twenties; there's a long-lostness to her timbre that makes you feel nostalgic for a time you weren't even alive in. These songs are polished: they're put on top of hushed banjo and pragmatic brass and hazy electric guitars so everything blends together just-so. It's a grown-up album that suggests veteran status, so it's plain unbelievable that this is her debut. It'll be a lot to live up to, that's for sure.
WATCH HER: Valerie June's Tiny Desk Concert
7. Portugal. The Man: "Evil Friends": This album is eclectic on the verge of being to a fault -- but ultimately, it's just right, bringing together pop, rock, hip-hop, dance, folk, and sounds that draw from all corners of the earth. What ties it together is that the hooks here are consistently hooky, and the builds consistently interesting. This is the kind of album that gets stuck in your head and you don't even realize it: you're sitting at the subway and you're humming the refrain from "Creep In A T-Shirt" (probably the best song on the album), and you say to yourself, "Huh. What is that?" Parts of this album sound like they belong on the radio; others sound like they belong in the basement of a hipster coffee shop. What Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton brings to the table is impeccable production sense, paired with ADHD. "Purple Yellow Red and Blue" featured most of the band Haim before there was any hype surrounding them. Burton has a great instinct for What's About To Happen. The excellent train wreck that results in his attempt to get it all out in one album is absolutely pure delight. Lucky us.
WATCH THEM: Portugal. The Man - "Purple Yellow Red and Blue"
6. Mikal Cronin: "MCII": When this album came out, every single music blog I follow had a collective orgasm/ aneurism and posted basically every track on a playlist with a caption that just said, "OMFG THIS ALBUM." That's because this is the rare piece of pop genius that is great through-and-through. There's no one song that singularly blows your mind; rather, they're all incredible and solid and decidedly excellent. The lyrics are great for the Eggars-reading coffee shop set (and that's not really a complaint). The strummy guitar hearkens to a simpler, more classic era of pop music (and that's not a complaint at all). The whole album makes me think of the late great Elephant 6 bands -- Beulah especially. Cronin comes across as dreamy, cool, composed, and simultaneously wonderfully tortured -- in other words, exactly the boy that every single girl in her twenties dreams of dating. I'll bet he even wears cardigans. Cronin has spent the past year playing for the excellent but decidedly different Ty Segall Band, and so this album was a delightful surprise for me: poppier and more fun than I'd expected, but with a newfound, sharp edge.
5. Laura Stevenson: "Wheel": Maybe this isn't the most technically brilliant album of the year, but it's my personal favorite. It's my favorite because I associate it with the most beautiful time of the year, and it came just when I needed it to. The first time I listened to it all the way through was riding my bike through a hot, tropical rainstorm, and when "Telluride" came on, I started to cry, because it was like she was singing all the things I was feeling, and I didn't know what else to do. I associate this album with turning the volume way, way up: in car rides across the South in the summer; in upstairs bedrooms with the air conditioning on; in sweaty summer work sessions and while making pies. It's deep South white-person music (that sounds really KKK-y, but that's not what I mean): it's folky and begs you to drink out of mason jars and let your oak furniture turn gray in the rain. I have listened to this album maybe more times than any other album in the history of my life, and for that, it sits in this spot, and I hope that is all you need to know about it.
4. Swearin': "Surfin' Strange": I wonder what it would be like to be a Crutchfield. Allison Crutchfield (of Swearin')'s sister is Katie Crutchfield, the lead singer of Waxahatchee. They both sound weathered and bitter, and they write the kinds of lyrics that make you grateful you're not either of their ex-boyfriends. But their bands are really different, which is unique for a pair of singin', song-writin' sisters. Waxahatchee's release this year, "Cerulean Salt," was beautiful and strong, but too closely-watched and too polished for my taste. Alternately, Swearin' -- a much punkier, higher-energy band in 2012 -- put out a kind of weird little rough-around-the-edges album at the end of this year that made me feel a lot of the things Waxahatchee's first album ("American Weekend") made me feel: understood, emptied, and gutted. This album is almost better than "American Weekend," though, because Swearin' hasn't totally discarded their we-don't-give-a-fuck-ness, and a few tracks here are decidedly punk-rock-flavored (complete with background screams behind the pop-rock guitar riffs and bored-sounding lead vocals). By the time you get to "Loretta's Flowers," you've already gone on an emotional musical roller coaster, and the song swallows you whole, grabbing you by the throat when Crutchfield sings, "When you get older, you'll realize this wasn't love."
3. Lizzo: "Lizzobangers": This. Album. Is. Magnificent. First of all, Lizzo is a technically exceptional rapper. She is smart, quick, funny, sexy, and political; she has a number of lyrics that make you go, "DAMN, did she just do that?" She's old school insofar as she relies on good rapping and strong, simple hooks over over-the-top production and crazy-remixed sampling. But that's all that's old-school about her, because her voice is fresh, and her perspective is woefully underrepresented in popular music. ("Name a female rapper." "Missy Elliott." "OK, name a female rapper who has put out an album in the past five years and is not Nicki Minaj." "Ummm.") She's collaborating with the best producers on the scene right now (Lazerbeak, who has worked with P.O.S. and Dessa; and Ryan Olson from Polica and Marijuana Deathsquad), and she's made an album where every single track is hit, without a hint of sloppiness. The beats here are foundational and ground-breaking, but it's really Lizzo that brings the gold standard: this is rap music for those have been disillusioned. She gets political, but it's not heavy-handed to the point of feeling aggressive. It's brave and smart as fuck. The best song on here is "Bloodlines," but straight up: I can't get enough.
2. Moon Hooch - "Moon Hooch": This band started as an L Train subway band, but got banned by the Bedford Station police because too many people were dancing to their music and it was too much like an out-of-control party, and so there could be no more fun. You hear this album, and that backstory makes sense, because the music is infectious, and you seriously can't not dance. It's jazz, but it's modern; it employs traditional riffs and the musicians playing are really talented and have clearly studied both trad and bop because they sew the genres together flawlessly and almost imperceptibly. This is a real rags-to-riches deal, too, because people loved them so much that they got a gig on Broadway -- and deservedly so. There is nothing quite like this sound, and it's universally likable. I have put this on at dinner several times, and have heard lots of comments like, "If that could keep going and never stop, ever, I would not be sad about it." It's all saxophone and drums, but they make it sound like so much more -- the saxophones often scream and squeal, but the rhythm is so quick and tight that it never digresses. So, in summation: This. Forever. The end.
1. Typhoon - "White Lighter": When I heard "Young Fathers" -- the first single off this album -- for the first time, I literally fell to my knees. I am a little dramatic about music, so this is not unheard-of, but it was the first time a song had done this to me all year, and I had to listen to it again, and again, and again. I was on a bus going from the suburbs of San Diego into Big San Diego, alone on my solo summer train pilgrimage. I couldn't believe the rhythm section, and since I was listening to it on a music podcast, I didn't realize it was Typhoon until after I had listened to it six or seven times all the way through. Typhoon is this band from Portland that I have been listening to for a few years, thinking that they were just on the verge of being huge. Then this album came out, and it felt like the world stopped. I couldn't listen to anything else, at all, no matter how much I knew I probably should. "White Lighter" demands that you listen to it on repeat, and all the way through. It plays like one big, long track, seamlessly floating from song to song. The themes are heavy and exhausting, but it's so rhythmically diverse and surprising that it's not draining. "Young Fathers" is the best cut on the album (it just is), but my favorite has evolved from month to month. Right now it is "Hunger and Thirst" (just listen to him sing, "Could've been a pop singer." JUST LISTEN TO IT, I DARE YOU). Plus, my Shipwrecked! co-producer e-mailed these guys and asked if we could use their album in a podcast and they said YES and were apparently VERY NICE, which means that these are COOL AND NICE GUYS. That's rare of a band that Pitchfork and NPR and The New York Times collectively swoon over all at once. OH YEAH and they played at RIDER STRONG'S WEDDING. My sister texted me that and I practically threw the phone. Because Rider Strong is my biggest all-time crush, and I have followed his wedding plans religiously (namely, I have been seeing what the likelihood was going to be that he would cancel them). But none of that is what grabbed them the number one spot on my list. They had it from the moment this album came out. It's one of the best albums I've ever heard, and I loved walking into Tender Loving Empire in Portland and buying it. I'll keep it forever.