And so, whittling down a long list of great albums from 2013 into a list of the top 25 proved to be a difficult task.
Our list started with a group of 50 albums that crossed genres. It was a memorable year that included heady albums by rap gods, comebacks from pop stars, gut-punching punk records, noisy calamities from indie bands and gorgeous pop records from girl groups.
These aren’t simply the albums that pumped through my headphones all year or the ones that never seemed to be taken out of the CD changer, but the 25 very best that came out in 2013.
10. Daft Punk, “Random Access Memories” (Columbia)
We stayed up all night listening to Daft Punk’s latest. And by “we,” I mean everybody. The most hyped album from the whole year, “Random Access Memories” was Daft Punk’s ode to disco, synthesizers, glam and Fleetwood Mac. They got so into the ’70s nostalgia, they even included icons Giorgio Moroder and Paul Williams. And it turns out the masked musicians’ jaunt into retro territory was just what we needed to make us dance.
9. The Thermals, “Desperate Ground” (Saddle Creek)
This Portland three-piece punk band went back to what it does best: Ripping rock anthems that clock in at about three minutes or less. “Desperate Ground” is an album about human obsession with war and violence told from the perspective of a man, sword in hand and born to kill. The Thermals’ careening power rock gives every song the feeling of a rushing battle.
8. Frightened Rabbit “Pedestrian Verse” (Atlantic)
With its fourth album, Frightened Rabbit finally came together as a band. After three albums of composing music for frontman Scott Hutchison’s songs full of heart-wrenching breakups and self-doubt. This time, the band created a lush, shimmering pop-rock album full of acoustic guitars, Scottish brogue and a drab, gray outlook appropriate for an album recorded in South Wales. There’s something triumphant the band brings even with all the sadness, maybe because singing about it means you’re getting over it.
7. Eli Mardock, “Everything Happens for the First Time” (Self-released)
“Everything Happens for the First Time” is, as one may tell by the title, an album of new beginnings. Some songs were written for Mardock’s old band, Eagle Seagull, and some were written while that band imploded. Still others were written as he got married and had a child. This record is a pop album through and through full of all the staples: Moving ballads, spacey rock and big pop choruses. The best is “If You’re With Me, Then You’re Against Me,” a thumping bassline of a song that will get you moving as Mardock and his wife, Carrie Mardock, duet with lines such as “we’re just two beautiful monsters looking for a spark/we’re just two beautiful monsters dancing in the dark.”
6. Mikal Cronin “MCII” (Merge)
The quintessential song from “MCII” has to be “Change.” At first, the song tears through a gritty riff worthy of Nirvana before finding a singalong chorus that you’ll have stuck in your head even before it’s over. And by the time you find this is one of your new favorite pop songs, the floor drops out and complete chaos — including sharp violin notes — envelopes a calamitous finish. That’s Cronin in a nutshell: near-perfect pop songs and strummy tunes you’d think were perfect for a pop singer until you notice his long hair and the faint garage-rock buzz in the back of every song.
5. Matt Whipkey “Penny Park: Omaha, NE: Summer 1989” (Self-released)
Though anyone from Omaha could pull hours of nostalgia out of Whipkey’s references to Omaha’s Peony Park and other events and locales, it was his story of two people — a young man and the girl of his dreams, Penny Park — that rang true through this double album. If you want to feel 17 again, take a trip through Penny’s story, which wanders through theme parks, open windows on May nights and couples skates with a soundtrack of sunny country rock riffs as bright as a drive down the California coast in summer.
4. Superchunk, “I Hate Music” (Merge)
Known for pushing punk rock on indie music, it’s a surprise to hear Superchunk lead off a new album with an acoustic guitar. But the song and the rest of the album, titled “I Hate Music,” isn’t a rebellious record declaring hate for the very thing that pays their rent. The lead-off track, much like the rest of the album, evolves to include more crunchy nuggets than the pastries your grandma used to bake. That said, it is a record about dealing with loss and how music sometimes help you cope with losing your loved ones, but oftentimes does nothing to fill those holes. As Mac McCaughan sings in infectiously awesome lead single “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo,” music “can’t bring anyone back to this earth/or fill up the space between all of the notes/but I got nothing else, so I guess here we go.”
3. Tegan & Sara, “Heartthrob” (Warner Bros.)
Put on “Heartthrob” on your chosen music listening device. Be grabbed by album opener “Closer.” Dance to it. Love the synths. Stick around for “How Come You Don’t Want Me,” perhaps the most directly-worded breakup song ever, but also everything you’ve ever wanted to say. Be moved by “Now I’m All Messed Up,” another breakup tune but one that expresses its emotions in a way that no guy with an acoustic guitar ever would. When you’re done, realize you’ve listened to the best pop album of the year. The sister singer-songwriter duo dropped their guitars, embraced synthesizers and took a huge step into a world of pop that would make Prince proud.
2. Mount Moriah “Miracle Temple” (Merge)
Southern rock is supposed to fall in certain tropes, but instead of singing about sweet home North Carolina and good ol’ boys, Heather McEntire took a different look at her southern heritage. Growing up a gay girl in punk rock bands will give someone a different perspective on the South — McEntire said it’s “complex” — and she and guitarist Jenks Miller merge their thoughts and influences into a countrified rock album that’s equal parts progressive Springsteen and Allman Brothers rock and blues. And if you’re more interested in the music, feel free to fall in love with Mount Moriah’s slow, sweet melodies over and over as the album unfolds.
1. Vampire Weekend “Modern Vampires of the City” (XL)
We certainly weren’t tired of Vampire Weekend’s percussive pop, but the band’s move toward a lush rock sound a la Paul Simon circa “Graceland” gave us a record full of songs that had us humming its melodies and recalling its lyrics. Singer and lyricist Ezra Koenig gets philosophical about life as a twentysomething — the way those twentysomethings are apt to do — with lines such as “wisdom’s a gift/But you’d trade it for youth” and tunes about unemployment and girlfriends while percussionist Rostam Batmanglij drops islander beats to instead keep time with organ flourishes and high-pitched cries of “ya” and “yo.”
The band dropped cute and novel in favor of solidly-crafted indie pop, but the group’s Ivy League sensibilities still led them in a complicated and philosophical direction. It might be the strangest album of 2013, but its disparate pieces work better than anything else. Take lead-off track “Obvious Bicycle,” a song that layers piano melodies, interwoven harmonies, stark guitars and lyrics about finding a reason to shave play out over crunching percussion. Its seemingly incompatible sounds and its I-don’t-have-a-job theme shouldn’t work together, but it’s so good we can’t stop playing it over and over again in our head.
THE NEXT 15
The rest of the top 25 are great albums that should find a home in your record player, but they didn’t quite rise to the rarefied air of the top 10. Here they are in alphabetical order:
♦ The Avett Brothers, “Magpie and the Dandelion” (American Recordings)
♦ David Bowie “The Next Day” (Columbia)
♦ Deer Tick, “Negativity” (Partisan)
♦ Eminem, “The Marshall Mathers LP 2” (Interscope)
♦ Free Energy “Love Sign” (Free People)
♦ HAIM, “Days Are Gone” (Polydor)
♦ The Head and the Heart, “Let’s Be Still” (Sub Pop)
♦ Jay Z, “Magna Carta… Holy Grail” (Universal)
♦ The Joy Formidable “Wolf’s Law” (Atlantic)
♦ Tim Kasher, “Adult Film” (Saddle Creek)
♦ Paul McCartney, “NEW” (Hear Music)
♦ Phoenix, “Bankrupt!” (Atlantic)
♦ Sleigh Bells, “Bitter Rivals” (Mom + Pop)
♦ They Might Be Giants “Nanobots” (Idlewild)
♦ Waxahatchee “Cerulean Salt” (Don Giovanni)
Check out top 10 albums lists from past years:
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