What a weird fucking year for music. What looked good on paper sadly translated into the not-so-impressive on the ears: 2013 was the year that everyone released an album; 2013 was also the year that everyone flopped.
Let’s look at the many notable names in music that missed their mark in 2013: Phoenix, Youth Lagoon, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Deerhunter, Major Lazer, Fall Out Boy (jokes), The-Dream, Camera Obscura, Ciara, Jay-Z, Goldfrapp, MGMT, Britney Spears (this kills me), Lady Gaga, Cults, the return of Justin Timberlake…even the full length from Sky Ferreira didn’t live up to the magic of her EP.
And yet, where many stumbled, a few lived up to the hype, or lack thereof in the case of Beyoncé. Some overcame doubts that they could pull off another masterpiece. And plenty of room was left for newcomers to show the established set just how to make real music. Yes, there’s lots of familiar names on my list, but I was also fortunate to be exposed to brand new artists for the first time through live shows and word of mouth, a method of discovering music that closes the personal loop you have with certain tunes.
And so, while the year in music didn’t exactly shape up the way I expected it too, I’m pleasantly surprised by the results and am left hungry for what 2014 has in store.
30. HAIM – Days Are Gone
Wilson Phillips-esque is always chic, but these ladies are talented in their own right with unexpectedly different records like “My Song 5.”
29. Kurt Vile – Wakin On a Pretty Daze
The perfect soundtrack for unemployment, especially if you’re able to wander around Chicago’s lakefront. Weird, that was my life. Also one of the most warmly-produced albums of the year, and I don’t hate it.
28. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away
It’s about all of it, but it’s really all about “Jubilee Street.” Dead.
27. Bill Callahan – Dream River
A master songwriter returns with another provocative collection of songs that magically fits perfectly with the scenery of Colorado, so that’s chic for me.
26. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
Not gonna lie, I was a little disappointed by this release, but you still can’t deny that The National are really, really good at what they do. Maybe it’s just time for them to try something a little bit different the next time around. “Pink Rabbits” also kills.
25. Arctic Monkeys – AM
Who knew these guys would still be relevant all these years after “Fluorescent Adolescent” took over the radio, but the Arctic Monkeys’ AM was one of the most solid rock albums of 2013.
24. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Yes we’re all sick of “Get Lucky,” but there’s a reason why it blew up. Daft Punk finally returned in 2013 with the most slickly-produced odes to glam disco 70s funky chic with a roster of impressive guests to boot. Was it what everyone was hoping for in a new Daft Punk album? No, but it’s perfect in terms of what they were going for.
23. Laura Marling – Once I Was an Eagle
I don’t even know, she’s just really damn good at what she does.
22. Caveman – Caveman
I didn’t even know about this band until I caught their act while opening for Rogue Wave (moments) at Lincoln Hall this past June. I’m really glad I went early (when you go to a majority of shows alone, it’s easier to drink at the venue then alone in your apartment…awkward) because I can’t stop playing their self-titled LP. Glowing melodies fuzzy keys and emo subject matter – I can totally get down with that and you should too.
21. CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe
Obligatory, but it’s also a great album.
20. Iron & Wine – Ghost On Ghost
Sam Beam decided he also had to throw his hat in the ring in 2013, but he actually made a great album with Ghost On Ghost. Songs like “New Mexico’s No Breeze” and “Joy,” which had a killer music video to boot, are worth the price of admission alone.
19. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
She must have been going for a Fiona Apple-esque vibe with that album title, and while it’s definitely not Neko’s best album, it’s a solid entry in an outstanding catalog of music.
18. Rhye – Woman
Made up of Milosh and Robin Hannibal, Rhye’s Woman came out of nowhere and blew most listeners away, me being one of them. It also didn’t hurt that the group’s super exclusive show at Schubas was one of the best I’ve seen all year.
17. Atoms for Peace – Amok
This is what Thom Yorke’s Eraser should have sounded like, although I like them both. Whatever.
16. Majical Cloudz – Impersonator
I mean baiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii. Talk about emo moments. But really, it’s quite something to hear what Devon Welsh and his producer / collaborator Matthew Otto can do with the most minimal of elements.
15. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II
These are all supposed to be my top albums of 2013, but UMO’s II is definitely a favorite. But like really, “So Good At Being In Trouble,” “Monki,” “Secret Xtians.” Are you kidding me?
14. The Dodos – Carrier
I’ve mentioned this a few times on this blog that I hardly pay attention to anymore, but The Dodos are special not only because I love them, but because they were the subject of the first review I ever wrote. They disappointed with 2011’s No Color, but thankfully came back better than ever with Carrier, which is best digested in a solid listen from start to finish. It’s good to hear the group channeling the loss of guitarist Christopher Reimer into such beautiful art – putting the medium to its best possible use. Also bittersweet – the last show I saw at my home away from home, Lincoln Hall, was headlined by The Dodos; A fitting bookend to my life at that moment.
13. Night Beds – Country Sleep
Lead by Winston Yellen, newcomers Night Beds tugged at the heartstrings with Country Sleep. These are the types of songs you’d hear on The OC before the rest of humanity discovered them only because of said show, and yet they also avoid sounding clichéd. Also check out the super disturbing video for “Even If We Try.” Oh, also, my friend totally could have gone back to Winston’s hotel room the night they played the Varsity in Minneapolis, so that’s fun.
12. Disclosure – Settle
Another debut in a list of amazing debuts in 2013, Disclosure’s Settle was, by far, the best dance record released this year, and then Beyoncé had to come and mess everything up if you’re into more of an R&B flavor. But really, can we talk about “Latch” or “Defeated” or “You & Me” or “Help Me Lose My Mind” or really every track on this album, because damn.
11. Indians – Somewhere Else
Maybe it’s the chic album art that I wouldn’t mind having framed, maybe it’s the delicate yet slightly kooky vocals from Søren Løkke Juul (not to mention the kooky name, but whatever he’s from Copenhagen so act cool), maybe it’s the melancholy melodies backed by subtle electronics to make the whole thing grander, but Somewhere Else is certainly something else, in the best way possible.
10. Drake – Nothing Was the Same
I really didn’t want to like this album. Perhaps I was getting a little sick of Drake and I didn’t want anything to overshadow the amazingness that was and still is Take Care. But Nothing Was the Same is like, really, really good you guys. I still kind of don’t want it to be as good as it is, but damn, he cracked my top 10. Bravo.
9. Local Natives – Hummingbird
After breaking out with the brilliant Gorilla Manor, I’m really happy Local Natives avoided the dreaded sophomore slump and came out ahead with Hummingbird. And while it doesn’t offer much in terms of innovation, Hummingbird makes up for that in perfecting the direction of the band and setting excellent expectations with songs like “Ceilings,” “You & I” and the devastating “Colombia.”
8. Phosphorescent – Muchacho
If landscapes could sing songs, they would sound like those grouped together on Muchacho. It sounds new yet rustic at the same time, like you’ve heard these songs in a past life or something. Muchacho is beaten up, triumphant, free-wheeling and wistful – all the makings for one of the best albums of the year.
7. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
The expectations for this album were incredibly high, thanks to a viral campaign, “secret” shows, track listing leaks, and lots and lots of ad money. Ultimately, Reflektor fell short for many. Have Arcade Fire jumped the shark? Maybe. Our quaint little indie band are now playing arenas on the next tour and have a much larger sound to match. Yet isn’t this the complaint aimed at every band who were once someone’s secret that now everyone enjoys? It isn’t all bad, and Win Butler seems to know exactly what he and the rest of the group are to do with this newfound superstardom. And there’s still no denying the pockets of genius found throughout Reflektor, with the title track being one of my favorites of 2013. Maybe I’m a little jaded that the secret’s fully out in the open, but I think we’ll get a clearer picture of what Arcade Fire is turning into (or has become) with a follow-up, whenever that happens.
6. Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe
Like, this is almost a perfect album. There’s really not much more I can say.
5. James Blake – Overgrown
James Blake traded in the dubstep sound of his first proper LP for a more R&B flavored sound on Overgrown, and it pays off in dividends. Overgrown is a multi-textured album that has the ability to fully launch the listener into a dark, seductive atmosphere. It’s an album full of surprises, twists and turns that remind us why Blake is one of the best in the business.
4. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
A familiar name that actually pulled through in 2013. People love to hate Vampire Weekend, but why? I think it’s jealousy. Insanely talented, good looking, smart guys that make great fucking music with a sound that is distinctly their own, Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City is familiar enough while also offering something fresh over previous releases. It’s like a really solid piece of furniture. Don’t even get me started on “Hannah Hunt.”
3. Beyoncé – BEYONCÉ
Even though it’s not the number one album, Beyoncé’s surprise (that’s an understatement) “visual album” clearly won 2013. If there was ever a time to use the term “tour de force” to describe an album, let alone the full Beyoncé Experience that was dropped on humanity as the clock struck midnight on December 13, this would be the occasion.
Not only is the album 14 songs long, but there’s a full on music video for each song (and then some). And these aren’t just like, go-pro handycam bullshit videos. Oh, and on top of all of that, the album slays. It’s her best work yet, sounding current without overplayed while also pushing some sonic boundaries.
In an age of massive pre-release promotions that have the potential to do more damage than good (see every other major release from well-established artists this year), Beyoncé and her team were able to create an event akin to when Radiohead released In Rainbows. It shows her dedication to not only the craft, but also the meaning of music and its ability to bring people together. Don’t be jealous.
2. Volcano Choir – Repave
God damn Justin Vernon. I remember seeing Volcano Choir perform their first ever show at The Cedar in Minneapolis back in 2011. Since Justin Vernon was involved, the crowd was a who’s who of the Minneapolis music scene and Bon Iver fanboys, all trying to get a taste of whatever Vernon had his fingers on those days.
The show was awesome, but it was basically one giant, live experiment, similar to the entire structure of Unmap. Certainly, this wasn’t music for the mainstream and would remain one of Vernon’s many side projects with his buddies.
Ugh, that notion was so wrong, and what a difference two years makes. After seeing Volcano Choir perform at The Metro in Chicago in support of Repave, we now find the group as a fully-formed juggernaut, complete with a live show that employs a beautifully-designed lighting concept cascading off of a cave-like backdrop, with Vernon planted behind a pulpit, preaching to raptured audiences. The songs on Repave are no longer experiments in sound and electronics. These are lovely, anthemic, powerful songs that serve as a call to arms. Vernon, for the most part, ditches the falsetto, belting out lines like “set sail,” pleading with the listener to “repave, repave, repave, repave,” and to “shed skin.”
It’s as if Vernon is shedding the persona of Bon Iver, and he very well may be according to some recent interviews. He’s at the helm now of a different, more powerful ship now, and that plasters a giant smile on my face.
1. Kanye West – Yeezus
I’ve already dropped the mic on this album back in June, but once again, Kanye West has released the album of the year – an album that sounds like nothing else and pushes forward a very specific agenda about status and race in America. In closing, and in true Kanye form, Imma quote my previous post on Yeezus:
When Kanye first tweeted that he would be projecting new music at specific locations across the country, I dropped what I was doing and headed up the street to Wrigley Field, not knowing what to expect. In true Kanye form, the projection of “New Slaves” started an hour late. I tried to be as in the moment as possible while also trying to decipher what this new sound was and listening intently to the subject matter of what is a very deep song. Then, out of nowhere, in slammed the sample of Omega’s “Gyöngyhajú Lány.” It’s quite a beautiful and somewhat profound moment, actually, and felt more that way as me and 50 other people stared at the entrance of Wrigley Field with jaws dropped, while Kanye and Frank Ocean crooned “So let’s get too high, get too high again.” It may not be the same type of high that Dark Fantasy gave the world – Yeezus is a high of a very different sort. And thank God – At least none of us are bored anymore.