The Top 25 Albums of 2013
The Grand Return
Following a 3-year hiatus, I am finally back with another list. As usual, this was no easy task. Relistening to each album, choosing the right songs as samples, and writing up unrepetitive blurbs took up a good chunk of my free time over the past few weeks. But it had to be done. After listening to over 100 albums released in 2013, I was surprised to go back and see how brilliant music has been this year. Hard evidence for the fact that music can never die and it will grow and progress for the rest of our lives.
The Field – Cupid’s Head
The Field has a gift. Alex Willner can start a beat, a loop, repeat it ad infinitum with slight variation and occasional shifts, then 10 minutes later you say… damn that was TEN minutes?! In the good way, of course. Three great albums have led to this one and it’s exactly what I expected and desired. Willner has got his niche (minimal techno?) locked down and I don’t expect anyone to dethrone him anytime soon. Cupid’s Head is a novel batch of hypnotizing patterns and rhythms. Multiple listens are a must in order to deconstruct the rich detail and layering.
Tracks to sample: No. No..., A Guided Tour
Starfucker – Miracle Mile
Starfucker brings us another album full of fun pop-infused electronic rock songs. These guys stick to their indietronica jams that they’ve been doing so well since their debut. So what if they don’t breach into experimental territory? I’m one for innovation but if you can consistently deliver jumpy and enjoyable tracks, I’m not complaining. Be prepared for some earworms as well as a few victorious climaxes.
Tracks to sample: Beach Monster, Leave It All Behind
Bibio – Silver Wilkinson
Bibio’s another one of those genre-hoppers that switches between post-rock, ambient, downtempo, folk, indie rock, glitch-hop - and that’s only on this album. Compared to his other work, Silver Wilkinson tends towards the full, reverb-heavy, poignant electronic and guitar sounds. Definitely turn this on if you’re feeling in a nostalgic mood or to complement the pitter-patter of the rain outside.
Tracks to sample: The First Daffodils, You
Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe
Blood Orange channels some remarkable indie-tinged R&B, soul, and pop on Cupid Deluxe. Those genres are not typically my favorites so that must say something about the quality of this record - easy to love with his funky grooves, resonating vocals, and on-point production.
Tracks to sample: You’re Not Good Enough, Chosen
Deerhunter – Monomania
Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest was my #1 album of 2010 so it’s no surprise that Deerhunter have made the list again. This time around, the haunting ambience of their last album is smashed to bits by Monomania’s opening numbers, which dive headfirst into loud, noisy rock. The trend continues, albeit less intensely, through the album, so don’t let the Neon Junkyard and the Leather Jacket II scare you off. Luckily, their talent for painstakingly crafting songs is not gone. They are Deerhunter, recognizable as ever, but with an added ability to screech with high-pitched riffs and abrasive vocals. And while Monomania is not my #1 this time around, Deerhunter’s expansion into new territory is wholly successful.
Tracks to sample: Monomania, Back to the Middle
Wild Nothing – Empty Estate
Wild Nothing is an indie rock/pop band that would fit right in the ‘80s. A combination of dream pop, 80s new age synths, shoegaze, and catchy riffs. Lead singer Jack Tatum writes and records all of the music himself, and he takes his masterful work one step further on Empty Estate than last year’s wonderful Nocturne.
Tracks to sample: Ocean Repeating (Big-eyed Girl), A Dancing Shell
Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze
Kurt Vile’s newest album delivers smooth-sailing jams for the summer or winter. In the vein of Real Estate’s recent feel-good triumphs, Kurt’s voice and guitarwork sound as laidback and effortless as can be. Make no mistake though, Kurt is a superb songwriter and his less-than-perfect vocals are uniquely charming. If you take the time to listen in to what he has to say, you won’t be disappointed. His half-conversational, half-poetic speech is peaceful and pretty in its own right. And when he feels like it, Kurt shreds his way into your heart.
Tracks to sample: Wakin On A Pretty Day, Girl Called Alex
The Dodos – Carrier
The Dodos have some come a long way since singer-guitarist Meric Long bestowed us with his first gem – the Dodo Bird EP. What began as a folky solo project complete with virtuosic acoustic guitars and unquestionably powerful melodies and lyrics, has transformed into a full-fledged project featuring impressive original drumming, rocking electric guitars, marimbas, horns and the occasional string quartet. Of course, Meric’s acoustic and his lovely style of playing has remained an essential component throughout the years. On Carrier, The Dodos don’t reach the peaks of their classic, Visiter, but manage to bring something fresh to the table while maintaining their unique sound. The electric guitar is more prominent, the rhythms are as groovy as ever, and both Meric and drummer Logan Kroeber are still making me jealous with their skills. Damn, that outro on Substance is a thing of beauty.
Tracks to sample: Transformer, Family
Classixx – Hanging Gardens
Classixx delivered a surprisingly banging album this year with Hanging Gardens. This is straight up dance done right and it’s bursting with life and groove. Dance music has been oversaturated with dullness and predictability the past few years and this is one of those few albums that gives me some hope. Can we fill up the clubs with this please?
Tracks to sample: Hanging Gardens, Dominoes
Teen Daze – Glacier
Teen Daze has been genre-hopping for a while now and on Glacier, he has landed in an ethereal realm of slow-moving, evocative pieces. Reverb-laden guitars fit in the cracks of his even more reverby synths. If the name Glacier or the track titles themselves weren’t enough of a hint, the tracks on this album are ideal for a day out trekking through gently-falling snow.
Tracks to sample: Ice on the Windowsill, Forest at Dawn
!!! – Thri!!!ER
!!!’s music is as awesome as their name. THRI!!!ER contains more of their dancey, groove-to-the-MAX rock/pop/punk. There’s a sense of feel-good urgency that is hard not to ignore. A continuous rocky jam makes way for a stuck-in-your-head chorus makes way for a four-to-the-floor banging beat. This album is a complete party package and, yeah, that means there’s a sax solo.
Tracks to sample: One Girl / One Boy, Slyd
Phantogram – Phantogram
Phantogram, man. Their dancey trip-hop is SO infectious and they sound just as badass as they did when they debuted Eyelid Movies. Hard-hitting otherworldly beats, deep bass, beautiful singing, and catchy indie guitar riffs to boot. NOT to miss if they’re playing at a venue near (or far) from you. This release is regrettably only a four-song EP but their next full-length is out soon!
Tracks to sample: Black Out Days, The Day You Died
Jim Guthrie – Takes Time
It’s been a very long time since Jim Guthrie released a solo album (not to be confused with Woody Guthrie), and considering his last one, Now, More Than Ever, is one of my favorites, I was particularly excited for this one. Jim is an impeccably good songwriter and his songs usually feature his light acoustic guitar playing along with a wide range of instruments as accompaniment – the usual drums and bass as well as violins/strings, harmonicas, harps, horns, piano, synths, you name it. While he sticks to making lovely floating pieces, there’s just an undeniable professionalism in everything he does, keeping each second interesting like a true composer.
Tracks to sample: The Rest Is Yet To Come, Wish I Were You
Feed Me – Calamari Tuesday
Ah, finally an EDM artist that can fit right into the club scene with something that is actually compelling. If there’s one dance album to listen to this year while you’re pre-gaming or actually gaming, it’s this one. Calamari Tuesday features an eclectic mix of electro house, progressive house, glitch-hop, dubstep, complextro, folktronica… it’s hard to classify really, as even individual songs draw influence from many sources. Regardless, this guy knows what he’s doing and manages to combine the best aspects of these genres into something fantastic. Unsurprisingly, the tracks I chose as samples won’t give you an all-encompassing view of the album - there’s something for everyone!
Tracks to sample: Short Skirt, Love is All I Got (ft. Crystal Fighters)
Goldroom – Embrace
Embrace is the breeze of the seas, the beats of the clouds, the groove of the sounds of love on the dance floor. Goldroom’s fabulous EP makes me dream of modern discoes filled with charm and style, people looking for deep connections and avoiding shallow debauchery.
Tracks to sample: Only You Can Show Me, Fifteen
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Everyone was expecting a sick dance album from Daft Punk when they finally returned, because why wouldn’t you? Instead, they went all-out, spending years meticulously crafting this ode to the disco dance era. It’s decidedly less dance floor-ready than expected, instead offering a star-studded all-live instrument 70s/80s rock and pop bonanza that is truly epic in scope and execution. Music production just doesn’t get much better than this.
Track to sample: Lose Yourself To Dance, Instant Crush
Darkside – Psychic
It’s like lounge music of the future in a faraway land. It’s like an unreal fusion of rock, space, and beats. It’s a journey through the atmosphere looking down after the sunset. This album is in its own sector, a black hole for your ears and a force field against unoriginality. What more can I say?
Tracks to sample: Golden Arrow, Paper Trails
Phoenix – Bankrupt!
Ever since Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix came out, Phoenix has gained many supporters from both the mainstream and indie crowds, and for good reason. They successfully incorporated their brand of indie rock with the super catchy dance elements people love. Personally, I wasn’t sold on them until I saw them live. Then it all clicked. Bankrupt! is the logical progression from their last album and it features more synths along with their pounding rocky hooks. I can’t help but move and sing-along to pretty much every song on this album.
Tracks to sample: Trying to Be Cool, Chloroform
Bonobo – The North Borders
What happens when one of the illest downtempo/trip-hop producers recruits an orchestra to supplement his already immaculate sampling skills? Beauty and grace in finely-tuned expressive spaces. The clacking beats against the composed sounds of nature. This isn’t the first time Bonobo has bestowed us with such a deep listening experience. Close your eyes and let the sounds take you away.
Tracks to sample: Cirrus, Antenna
Trophy Wife – Trophy Wife
You know, Foals used to write great songs one after another. Trophy Wife noticed that Foals had lost that spark so they justifiably stole their torch. Ironically, Foals still exists and Trophy Wife is already gone. They drew influences from math rock, dance, and hip-hop and crafted an indie rock record that is unexpectedly fresh and impressive. Layers of fantastic rhythms combine flawlessly with wonderful melodies that could easily score wider appeal had they stuck together as a band. It’s sad to see them go. If you want more, they’ve also released an EP and an entire second version of this album.
Tracks to sample: Microlite, High Windows
The Octopus Project – Fever Forms
I haven’t been extremely impressed by The Octopus Project since One Ten Hundred Thousand Million, but Fever Forms succeeds in taking them to the next level. As soon as The Falls blasts open the album, the relentless ride begins. Except for one or two tracks in the past, The Octopus Project has been an instrumental group, however they throw that all behind this time around, and who knew they had such great voices? These guys are indietronica masters but can rock the roof straight off the place whenever they want. More than anything, this album is full of color and energy and I hope there is more to come. Don’t miss the deluxe bonus track edition!
P.S. This band features a professional theremin player (see: Perhap).
Tracks to sample: The Falls, Whitby
Goldfish – Three Second Memory
Goldfish was one of my favorite discoveries this year; fortunately they also happened to release a new album allowing me to include them here. Combining dance, electronica, jazz, rock, electroswing, downtempo and more, Goldfish blew me away and they better be making their hometown South Africa damn proud. Many of the songs are cheerful funky jams so it’s hard not to shimmy and smile. And when they tone it down for the more emotional numbers… simply sublime. This is one of the few albums this year to give me chills on multiple occasions. Those vocals!
Tracks to sample: Followers Of The Beat, Moonwalk Away
My Bloody Valentine – m b v
OH yes, the kings of shoegaze. My Bloody Valentine is back, 21 years after releasing their legendary album Loveless, and they’re better than ever. Yes, the ungodly amount of hype and dangling hope has led to this freakish anomaly – a reunion album two decades in the making that actually sounds amazing and picks up right where the band previously left off. M b v features the familiar high-pitched background (always background) vocals of Kevin Shields and Blinda Butcher along with their defining, stunning wall-of-sound distorted, reverby guitar tones. It’s a bit clearer than Loveless, and a few of the songs definitely lay down the groove. However, they make absolutely no concessions to whatever changes were expected of them to fit in with the rest of the 2010s lot. Mix this album in with My Bloody Valentine’s discography, claim it was released in 1994, and no one would think you were lying. M b v is an unreal swirling expanse of quick-sand fuzz and dreamscapes. There’s nothing more you can do than bask in it.
Tracks to sample: If I Am, New You
Arcade Fire – Reflektor
I’ve come to expect no less of Arcade Fire. They succumb to the dance trend of the past few years, but impressively own it anyway. For once, they tone down the overly emotional crooning of the past, the string section steps behind the curtain, and Win Butler pens his songs on sunnier days, making way for the band’s unused synths and dance beats, ultimately allowing uncharacteristically catchy melodies and rhythms to shine through. The songs that don’t seem immediately accessible really have a way of breaking through the surface upon further listening.
Tracks to sample: Reflektor, We Exist
Ducktails – The Flower Lane
I don’t know how I’m going to explain this one. On the surface, the newest record from Real Estate’s guitarist Matt Mondanile is a simple indie rock record, bringing to mind the perfect vibes of Real Estate and Ducktail’s previous reverby bedroom jams. There isn’t much more than guitar, bass drums, and keyboard on this album, coupled with the occasional horns/strings as well as Matt’s imperfect vocals. But there’s just something there, something that takes some digging to discover. There’s a magical sense of genuineness, of honesty. The guitar tones are just right. Rocking solos, lovely riffs, propulsive grooves, unassuming tunes, and a love for music.
Tracks to sample: Ivy Covered House, Under Cover
P.S. Check out Wish Hotel, an EP that was also released by Ducktails this year and is just as good.
'Til next time..
Looking back at my 2010 and 2009 lists, I would definitely rearrange and add/remove many of the albums, especially for 2009, but here they are for completion.
Top albums of 2010
Top albums of 2009
written by Val Bess