artwork by Mat Hudson
Music in 2013 has been an embarrassment of riches – we really can't stress that enough. It's almost poetic that just hours before we published this list, Beyoncéreleased a surprise LP that not only fucks with the traditional album releasing strategies, but challenges pop music as a whole.
That's just one of many examples of why it was so great to be a music fan in 2013. This year, we were seduced by comebacks and reunions we never expected to hear at all, or albums from new talents that seemed to come out of nowhere. As we do every year, we celebrated by ranking the forty albums that stuck with us the most this year - and we also threw in 25 honorable mentions that are, in their own right, unmissable. Best part? You can listen to all of them for free, thanks to Rdio. Follow that link and sign in with Facebook if you don’t have an account, so you can follow along. Thanks for listening with us this year.
HONORABLE MENTIONS of 2013
AlunaGeorge - Body Music
A$AP Rocky - LONG.LIVE.A$AP
Bill Callahan - Dream River
Boards of Canada - Tomorrow's Harvest
Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light
David Bowie - The Next Day
Drake - Nothing Was The Same
FIDLAR - FIDLAR
Foals - Holy Fire
Forest Swords - Engravings
Fuck Buttons - Soft Focus
Italians Do It Better - After Dark 2
James Holden - The Inheritors
Jon Hopkins - Immunity
Julia Holter - Loud City Song
Lady Gaga - ARTPOP
Lorde - Pure Heroine
M.I.A. - Matangi
Majical Cloudz - Impersonator
Marnie Stern - The Chronicles of Marnia
Mikal Cronin - MCII
Okkervil River - The Silver Gymnasium
The Weeknd - Kiss Land
Unknown Mortal Orchestra - II
Youth Lagoon - Wondrous Bughouse
40 James Blake - Overgrown
39 Darkside - Psychic
38 Oneohtrix Point Never - R Plus Seven
37 Baths - Obsidian
36 Rhye - Woman
35 London Grammar - If You Wait
34 Deafheaven - Sunbather
33 Charli XCX - True Romance
32 Jai Paul - demos
31 Iceage - You're Nothing
30 Deerhunter - Monomania
29 Tim Hecker - Virgins
28 Speedy Ortiz - Major Arcana
27 Earl Sweatshirt - Doris
26 Neko Case - The Worse Things Get...
25 Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels
24 Phosphorescent - Muchacho
23 Arctic Monkeys - AM
22 Waxahatchee - Cerulean Salt
21 Torres - Torres
When I saw Torres live a few weeks ago she mentioned that she was getting bored of playing the songs on her debut. As soon as she said this a girl next to me gasped and looked at Mackenzie Scott like a child looks at a father who got drunk before dressing up like Santa, thereby ruining the illusion. Her look told a story about what makes TORRES as good as it is. It's deeply personal themes and peaks and valleys of sonic intensity etch out an engrossing listening experience. It speaks to universal emotions in ways that ring true and are not stylized into absurdity. For the woman in the crowd, Scott's comment betrayed the emotional bond that she had formed with the album. That it is able to form that bond, in both a subtle and powerful way, is what makes TORRES so excellent.
Mackenzie Scott's voice goes a long way toward making the album feel particularly intimate. It works in soft, hushed tones (“November Baby”); more mid-range rock numbers (“When Winter's Over); and piercing crescendos of intensity (near the end of “Honey” and “Jealousy and I” in particular). Throughout, her singing has a natural humanism and a distinct energy that makes it difficult to ignore. It also helps that much of the songwriting is solid, particularly on the tunes that build and collapse in unexpected places, employing a song structure that is as fragile as much of the content. Some of the album's lesser moments sag in comparison to its standouts but, what is important, is that one can see why the girl at the Torres show was distraught. The album edges itself inside your head and makes itself comfortable. No one need be told that it doesn't belong there. [Drew Malmuth]
20 My Bloody Valentine - mbv
An album is judged not only on its own merits, but also in relation to the band's past releases and the broader music scene that it is released in. That is why m b v was the enigma of 2013 and why it poses such interesting questions for listeners and critics. How do you approach an album that has 22 years of space between itself and the band's last release? Should it be judged on Loveless's terms, or does Kevin Shields need to make a statement about what his unique sound means today? It turns out, as interesting as those questions may be, they have little bearing on the m b v listening experience – an engrossing, mind-bending onslaught of dripping guitar and fuzzy sentimentality. It takes the charming, meandering rock that was so pervasive this year and drives it through a tangled web of distortion and whammy bars. Shields had always delicately balanced tender pop tendencies with a need to rip those tendencies from their foundation and shroud them in warped sound engineering. m b v carries on that tradition to great effect and, with a song like “wonder 2,” shows that there is still room for the band to forge new territory. Some feared the return, and potential tarnishing, of My Bloody Valentine; now I fear them breaking up again. [Drew Malmuth]
19 Foxygen - 21st Century Ambassadors...
We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic is Foxygen’s unapologetic homage to '60s rock, crafted by annexing echoes of sounds the band members bonded over through the years. That’s why it plays like a blustery expedition through the twisting sonic side-streets of rock ‘n’ roll’s convoluted musical past.
It’s a charming modern take on vintage rock that at times evokes recollections of Velvet Underground, Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, but is buttressed by enough clever tricks, psychedelic swirls and glitzy flourishes of their own to keep things sounding weird and fresh - and quell any accusations that this is out-and-out mimicry. With one denim-clad leg rooted firmly in the '60s and the other stretching for the future, it's one of 2013's most delightfully nostalgic LPs. Though it does lose the award for wordiest album title of the year to Neko Case. [Benji Taylor]
18 The Knife - Shaking The Habitual
With each LP, masked brother-sister act the Knife have become more indulgent toward their own theatricality and more aggressive about using their music to combat systemic inequality in their home nation of Sweden and globally. Shaking The Habitual might be the year’s most accurately titled album (sorry Yeezus): its purpose is to jolt the listener out of complacence, and it accomplishes that goal. Even at its most conventionally satisfying, Shaking The Habitual challenges expectations (and attention spans) – the formidable opening gambit of “A Tooth For An Eye” and “Full Of Fire” is the only stretch of the record even remotely likely to get bodies moving on a dancefloor, but the two tracks together take up over 15 of the record’s total 97 minutes and feature a grotesque menagerie of pitch-shifted vocals. It only gets stranger from there, from the nearly industrial clatter of the rhythms to the 19-minute ambient track called “Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized.” At one point, though, Karin Dreijer Andersson quotes Jeanette Winterson: “I’m telling you stories, trust me.” One of the album’s principal concerns is storytelling – narrative as a means of making sense of chaos, and the way the stories we tell ourselves can perpetuate the status quo or empower us to disrupt it. The Knife try to teach us the difference and invite us to actively participate through critical listening: “Here’s the story, what’s your opinion?” goes a line from “Full Of Fire.” The Knife’s acute sense of storytelling also helps us make sense of the band’s own chaotic creation. They may violently shake the habitual, but they don’t destroy it outright, and consequently the record is a journey that even the most avant-garde-averse listener can attempt. [Samuel Tolzmann]
17 Kurt Vile - Wakin On A Pretty Daze
Kurt Vile is an unusually instinctive guitar player. Compositionally, everything he makes sounds like nothing less than second nature. It’s long been tacitly understood that the better you are at something, the easier you can make it look. Vile does a little more than that – he makes his guitar sound like an extension of himself. The loosely cut facility with which he cross-hatches alternative country, folk and indie rock into his sprawling jams almost completely conceals the tracery within. It’s almost as disservice to call them jams.
The absurdly relaxed Wakin On A Pretty Daze is tranquil to the point where sounds like the whole thing could have been recorded in one sitting. Vile is as keyed in to this as anyone else. “Making music is easy/Watch me,” he boasts on the velveteen “Was All Talk”. The field of employable adjectives for this album has been picked pretty clean at this point, but Vile gets to the heart of the matter with six simple words. Far from cocky, that same loosening of the reigns somehow makes 9-minute songs seem terse and contained. Dilating his scope, Vile hollows out a warm, ornamental world for his thoughts to roam around in. Some grasp for maturity, others are distracted by pretty ordinary problems, yet they all register more as observations than painstaking heartache or angst. His troubles aren’t sinking him; they just float downstream along with everything else. “The purest of pure pain” is rarely such smooth listening. [Brendan Frank]
16 Danny Brown - Old
Twenty years on from the “golden” year of hip-hop, one would expect the sight of an ageing rapper softening his approach to be cliché, and kind of boring. It usually is. But in Danny Brown's hands, even an attempt to be more mainstream comes out as a fierce collection of biography, social criticism, and descriptions of how big his penis is. The album is sharply divided between two approaches: heady, meandering beats alongside jacked-up anthems that make his shows the kind where blowjobs are given onstage; a deeper more reflective tone of voice alongside the high-pitched squeal that he is known for; detailed, and often gripping, stories of Brown's childhood alongside the typical, and tired, party themes.
Can these two approaches co-exist? Does a song like “Clean Up” with its thoughtful take on escapism and responsibility (“hotel rooms crushin pills in menus/ daughter sending me messages saying daddy I miss you/ but in this condition I don't think she need to see me/ ain't slept in four days and I'm smellin like seaweed”) make sense alongside “Red 2 Go,” a joyride of menacing drums and vicious one-liners? Not only is the answer yes but the question shouldn't even have to be asked. Both of the songs are stellar and they put into stark relief the battle between the two sides of Danny's brain (“should I ruminate on my failings as a father or talk about how I've smoked so many blunts I can hear my lungs whistlin?”). Luckily he chose to represent both. It's an album that is cohesive in its disjointedness, the way the best music often is. [Drew Malmuth]
15 Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience
The 20/20 Experience opens with an eight-minute track, because of course it does. In fact, only two of the 21 songs featured in the “double album” are less than five minutes. Thirteen of them are longer than six minutes. Naturally, this has led to the frequent criticism that Timberlake’s music is too bloated, and the albums are too long.
But this critique mistakes generosity for indulgence. Take “Pusher Love Girl,” the eight-minute song that starts it all. For four minutes, “Pusher Love” is an absolutely perfect pop song, blending futuristic production with vintage, big-band orchestration and Timberlake’s silky-smooth vocals. Then, at 4:53, the strings swell, swirl and wind down to reveal a remixed beat and a re-shuffled hook – an extended epilogue. Essentially, Timberlake and Timberland take the song and remix it on the spot, laying down all their musical ideas on the track for the whole world to hear. If you don’t like it, you can just skip to the next track. With this project, Timberlake & Co. admirably embody the ambition and desire associated with creating new music - it's something to be celebrated, not slammed as indulgent and sloppy.
Yes, The 20/20 Experience is bloated, imperfect and too long. But that’s also what makes it great. [Adam Offitzer]
14 Laura Marling - Once I Was An Eagle
With Once I Was an Eagle, Laura Marling reminds us that sometimes the best music isn’t easy. As dense as Dylan and often as penetrating, the songs here circle about themselves, running into and up against one another, weaving a tapestry more complex and more interesting than anything else you probably heard all year. As for album’s sound, genre descriptors won’t do. Is it folk? Rock? Folk rock? Chamber pop? All and none of the above, and all at the same time. Weird rhythms, brittle acoustics, and that voice — eerie, ethereal, ever enticing — combine to create a haunting and utterly singular sonic experience.
There’s little point in picking out choice cuts (though for the curious or uninitiated, check “Master Hunter,” or hell that gorgeous five-track medley leading up to it). Marling is a rarity on the contemporary scene in that she makes albums that she damn well intends to be heard as such. This record is all about the cumulative effect, a triumph of the whole against the sum of its parts. Sure, that approach may be a little old-fashioned, but you can’t argue with the results. Once I Was an Eagle is a total triumph, and not in spite of its difficulty or its form, but because of them. [Jerrick Adams]
13 Janelle Monáe - The Electric Lady
Janelle Monáe is cooler than you. She’s cooler than the person next to you. She sweats cool and her tuxedo is always clean pressed by the coolest dry cleaner in town. So, let’s not dance around the subject (though, damn, girl, it’s easy to dance to), this album is cool. “Dance Apocalyptic,” is just about the jammiest rock 'n roll jam that’s come out this year. “Primetime,” is an old school love song, that conjures equal parts Prince’s bedroom and Elvis’s tender romance. The skits are hilarious, and the fictional Cindi Mayweather alter-ego narrative opens exciting and virginal space for fiction in pop-music storytelling.
Electric Lady’s got groove, it’s got soul, it’s creative, empowering for women, LGBTQRs (the R, of course, for Robot), and anyone who loves love. And even though Monáe never quite sheds the veneer of her powered-up, powdered-up performance persona, she still sounds like a young woman sure of herself, sure of her music, and someone you’d sell a couple of toes just to hang out with for an hour. On top of that, even at this high level, she is still miles from reaching her potential. If The Electric Lady is any indication, we’ve got years left of sexy, booty-shaking work to come. [Jesse Nee-Vogelman]
12 Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
It’s remarkable how much Daft Punk have rebounded since releasing Human After All to a universal yawn back in 2005. Random Access Memories not only debuted at the top of the Billboard 200, earned the duo seven Grammy nominations, but has received wide admiration from critics and fellow artists alike. Even more astounding, Daft Punk’s rehabilitation didn’t come from rehashing the electronic sounds of Homework and Discovery, touchstones of the vibrant EDM scene, but by reconstructing the precise studio craftwork of the 1970s.
And yet as a complete work of art, one so stylistically varied and sprawling, Random Access Memories hasn’t been for everyone. Unequivocally alluring singles aside, more than a few were bored by Random Access Memories’ “sad robot” ballads and baffled by its imposing centerpiece “Touch.” Still, the album’s loudest detractors ought to marvel at Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter’s accomplishment. They not only brought together an A-Team of collaborators (including living legends such as Nile Rogers and Giorgio Moroder), but produced an astounding sonic artifact. The robots mistitled their maligned third album. It is Random Access Memories – a wholehearted, analog masterstroke – that demonstrates they’re human after all. [Peter Tabakis]
11 Volcano Choir - Repave
Nearly all of Justin Vernon’s music comes with strong imagery attached. It doesn’t hurt that nearly every album that he’s put his stamp on has some type of natural scenery on its cover. Firm in its belief that size matters, Volcano Choir’s sophomore effort takes the analogy even further. Songs start off as almost unnoticeable wisps of sound that grow slowly, until you have a cresting wave crashing into the shore. While Vernon revealed his fondness for jumbo-sized moments gradually, Repave merges his equal love for bombast and grace with unambiguous finality. Thankfully, Volcano Choir are fully aware of when to utilize each. They lunge for your heart with their choruses and yank on your tear ducts in between.
Volcano Choir will always be viewed as Vernon’s pet on pedigree alone, but the music, written almost exclusively by guitarist Chris Rosenau and the rest of Collection of Colonies of Bees, provides an ideal medium for his elastic voice. The minutiae are engineered to precision. Take “Tiderays”, which stumbles around uneasily, like it’s learning how to walk for the first time, before finding its footing and waltzing to a gorgeous finale. There’s a tremendous sense of equality and balance. “Comrade”’s pirouetting synths and “Byegone”’s canyon-filling screams are as meticulous as the folk balladeering of “Alaskans” or the multiphasic stutter-stepping on “Almanac”. Through his lyrical abstractions, Vernon presents Repave as a wholly sonic experience, one to be experienced on a sensory level. Less conspicuous fragments of Bon Iver are also undoubtedly abundant on Repave, but it stands alone for different, equally remarkable reasons. [Brendan Frank]
10 Savages - Silence Yourself
Based in London, the all-female quartet Savages make agitated, pitch-black post-punk stripped of spare parts, wound up to the breaking point, and performed with consummate skill. In a musical landscape that’s been more interested in glowing synths and low-key vibes for years now, Savages cut through like razor wire with a full-throttle, lightning-in-a-bottle intensity that’s both spectacular and terrifying to behold. They’re the kind of band that neither asks for nor accepts compromise, and while another act that took itself this seriously might come off as silly, Savages are so good and so committed that there’s not really any way to question their veracity. The album’s called Silence Yourself and the opening track is called “Shut Up,” but Savages probably didn’t need to be so blunt to get their desired effect, because only a fool would dare interrupt them. “When you hit me, I’m ready,” snarls frontwoman Jenny Beth at one point, but really, who’d even try? Writing about the record earlier this year, I described the band as sounding like they’re itching for a fight, but the more time I spend with Silence Yourself, the less it feels like a fight than a massacre; Savages will always come out on top. Their brand of brutal, austere rock doesn’t make for easy listening, but sometimes a listener needs a good ass-kicking, and if there’s one thing you can always count on Savages for, it’s that. [Samuel Tolzmann]
09 HAIM - Days Are Gone
Someday when people ask what 2013 sounded like it might be just as easy to put on HAIM’s excellent Days Are Gone in lieu of formulating a response. It’s not the band’s ubiquity that makes them pillars of the year – there were countless breakthrough acts that got far more attention and reached far more ears – but the bounty of sounds and styles sprinkled across 11 genre-hopping tracks that managed to sound both coherent and fresh. Three sisters who grew up toggling between Janet Jackson, Sheryl Crow, TLC, Wilson Phillips, and Destiny’s Child wore their influences proudly and finally found success after 6 years of recording and releasing nothing.
Days Are Gone overflows with pop hooks, an audio smoothie of every great song you heard on the radio in the 90s … only cooler and indie-r. “The Wire” is the best Shania Twain tune as covered by a female Michael Jackson impersonator ever recorded – period, and one of the year’s best tracks. Some try to dismiss HAIM’s hybrid sound as contrived, but album openers “Falling” and “Forever” are all heart, authentic representations of the sounds the sisters truly hear in their tuneful heads. Haters can waste their time obsessing over how their sound is a derivative, calculated product – the rest of us can enjoy the most fun debut album of the 2013. [Matthew M.F. Miller]
08 CHVRCHES - The Bones of What You Believe
Despite being described as “a band that was born on the internet,” CHVRCHES’ glittering magnum opus possesses a je ne sais quoi that imbues it with a vitality beyond anything found on your browser. The culmination of over a year of blog buzz, The Bones of What You Believe came exactly as advertised: a coruscating, candy-coated series of synth-pop confections delivered in rapid succession; but managed to feel fresh even as the Glaswegian trio trod on territory they had already claimed dominion over.
That can be attributed to the dynamism of Lauren Mayberry, the spunky and sprightly front woman, whose dulcet vocals grace a vast majority of the material. However, static siren she is not; something proven by the thinly-veiled aggression of her lyrics. Do not expect her to lay down without a fight. As she demonstrated with her eloquent invective against online misogyny earlier this autumn, Mayberry is a force to be reckoned with. Give her the right sonic soap box, as much of CHVRCHES’ debut album does, and she makes an incredibly convincing argument. One dance amidst the astral arpeggios of The Bones of What You Believe, and she will make a convert out of you yet. Join the long line of believers lining up before the altar of CHVRCHES and prepare for their inevitable ascendance to even greater heights. [Jean-Luc Marsh]
07 Chance the Rapper - Acid Rap
In the year of Yeezus, we were forced to accept the “new” Kanye West – now a cold, intense, abrasive, unsmiling and permanently angry figure. The soul samples of College Dropout and sweet strings of Late Registration are gone; replaced with house beats and heavy metal. Critics certainly took a liking to this attitude and the music that came with it – Yeezus has topped endless year-end lists to date (I mean, just get to the end of this list and see what we mean). But it’s hard not to miss the old Kanye – a fun-loving, self-conscious wordsmith with an ear for a good chorus and soulful production.
Fortunately, Chance The Rapper is here to fill that void. Acid Rap is a near-perfect mixtape – 13 songs laced with the soul, energy and joy of Kanye’s early work. The choruses are relentlessly catchy (“Favorite Song” and “Cocoa Butter Kisses”), the featured guests represent exciting new voices (Action Bronson, Childish Gambino, Vic Mensa, Ab-Soul), and the influences range from reggae (“Juice”) to gospel (“That’s Love”). Acid Rap might not be the best pure rap album released this year, or the most important. But it’s certainly the most fun. And in a year full of dark, intense, moody rap music (not just Kanye, but Pusha T, Drake and Danny Brown), it’s nice to have someone reminding us that “everything’s good.” [Adam Offitzer]
06 Arcade Fire - Reflektor
Depending on your predilections, Reflektor either proves the emperor is naked or that tall poppies don’t stand a chance in our culture. This very debate highlights a single, incontrovertible truth: Arcade Fire recorded their riskiest album when they least needed to, while standing astride the world. Their fourth LP is both an extension of the past (especially “Sprawl II,” writ way large) and a sharp left-turn (a visit to the streets of Haiti during Carnival). Above all else, Reflektor brings a stoned, dorm-room hypothetical to life. What if James Murphy produced an Arcade Fire album? They could combine Greek myth with pan-African rhythms. Dude, dude – the opening track – David Bowie sings backup. Ha, ha, ha!
Reflektor’s improbable concept sounds nuts on paper. But song for song, the album hits familiar beats. There are rollicking tunes (“Normal Person” and “Joan of Arc”), splendid ballads (“Awful Sound” and “Supersymmetry”) and moments where the band transcends genre distinctions altogether (“Reflektor” and “It’s Never Over”). With “Here Comes the Night Time” and “Afterlife,” new and old sounds reach their respective pinnacle. Both songs shoot straight to the top of the band’s repertory.
Reflektor pisses off some Arcade Fire fans, those who often lament the bygone days of Funeral and intimate church shows. So be it. Let them grumble. Grumble hard even. Isn’t that the surest sign the band is doing something right? [Peter Tabakis]
05 The National - Trouble Will Find Me
On sixth LP Trouble Will Find Me, The National spectacularly silenced those who doubted they could maintain the sweeping splendour and elegant composition of earlier masterstrokes Boxer and High Violet. Matt Bernginer is a fantastically unreliable narrator - “I have only two emotions, careful fear and dead devotion” he bemoans on the irresistible "Don’t Swallow The Cap". Of course, you should never trust a man drowning in a gloomy sea of angst and existential dread. In reality Trouble Will Find Me is a kaleidoscopic ice-storm of every emotion that comes with aging, and the glut of frustrations that amass as the boundless promises of youth slip away and slide out of sight.
Over the course of thirteen eerily perfect songs the band merge misery and morosity into something darkly majestic, using light and shadow from deep within places of the human psyche that many of us would prefer not to visit. It’s an absorbing and accomplished LP infused with heartache and imagination, each song a blistering slow-burning fire, that merge to form a scorching inferno of an album.
All the trademarks of their past brilliance are here, but magnified: Berninger’s molten-amber baritone, Devendorf’s perfectly paced patters of percussion, the Dessner brothers’ melancholic fretwork – flawlessly forged into beautifully desolate ballads to lost lovers ("I Need My Girl"), gut-wrenching reflections on the shifting, self-consuming nature of doubt ("Demons"), and the inability to quell an all-encompassing love for someone (gloomy but glorious piano dirge "Pink Rabbits").
Few things in life are certain: death, taxes, a disappointing World Cup performance for England… and that The National will long continue their relentlessly reliable run of fiercely impressive albums. [Benji Taylor]
04 Disclosure - Settle
In crafting Settle, fraternal British duo Disclosure seemed to be chasing after something similar to Timbaland’s Shock Value, in that they made an album rife with guest spots and anchored it with their own production. But the similarities stop there. Whereas Timothy Mosley’s effort relied a bit too heavily on imported talent, Guy and Howard Lawrence’s perfectly-timed roster of summertime bangers never finds itself overshadowed by its invitees–a formidable task considering the caliber of the guests on Settle.
Sure, Sam Smith comes close to upstaging the brothers with his impressive falsetto and silky bedroom voice, but in the end, Disclosure prevails. Even the highly talented likes of Aluna Francis, Jessie Ware, Hannah Reid, and company never gain control despite verses on par with the best of their original material. And when the guests have gone back home as on “F for You,” the party continues as if nothing has changed.
Shock Value’s material often found itself dominated by characters such as Nelly Furtado or Justin Timberlake, and the production languished behind such star power. Timbaland himself realized this, jumping ship on several occasions, and dropping tedious one-liners or enervating grunts. Conversely, Disclosure remain perpetually behind the helm of Settle, sticking with production and doing it well. They, not anyone else, are in control. The result is an effortlessly engineered dance record that transcends its simple formula, delivering delight without having to resort to shock value. [Jean-Luc Marsh]
03 Autre Ne Veut - Anxiety
According to my careful scientific calculations, we’ve heard approximately a zillion versions of “hipster R&B” or whatever since this decade began, most of them designed to be shadowy and sexy. Anxiety, Arthur Ashin’s sophomore effort as Autre Ne Veut, is unmistakably a contemporary R&B record, but it’s not very “shadowy,” though it does explore some of the dimmer recesses of the human psyche. It’s certainly not very sexy, but it is one of most sexual pieces of music I’ve heard in a long time, by which I mean that it’s very physical and messy and bizarre and primal; that it’s intense, personal, and much too close for comfort.
Often, the editing process is a time when artists reign in or qualify their more outré impulses. In Ashin’s case, it seems to have been a time to jettison any impulse that wasn’t garish. As Kanye West will tell you, minimalism is in this year, but Anxiety is about as ambitiously maximal as possible; the ten songs here are deliriously overstuffed. From the staggeringly huge chorus on opener “Play By Play” right on through to the bittersweet outro of “World War,” the album constantly sounds too massive to sustain itself, like it’s about to careen out of control. Meanwhile, in 2013’s most virtuosic vocal performance, Ashin gets his inner diva and his inner freak on at the same time, letting loose a deranged banshee wail with such strutting confidence you’d think he didn’t know his was the weirdest vocal work on the scene in years. Paired with Anxiety’s explosive emotional intensity, it’s all a bit much to take, but Ashin generously gives us some familiar elements to clutch onto: rich, gorgeous melodies and the discernable lineage of classic R&B singers. For all his bluster, camp, and traumas, Ashin gives back even more than he demands from the listener, making Anxiety consistently worth the effort. Like I said, unconventional takes on R&B are a dime a dozen these days, but no one else is courageous enough to make music that sounds even remotely like this. [Samuel Tolzmann]
02 Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
Listening to Modern Vampires of the City for the first time was an odd experience for me, as I’d always been more of an admirer of Vampire Weekend than a fan. Not only was I floored upon first contact, my previous encounters with the band were retroactively validated. Contra and Vampire Weekend made total sense to me upon hearing Modern Vampires. As I continue to dissect it six months later– with my reserve of Kool-Aid thoroughly depleted – I’m continuously returning to a phrase from Frank Herbert’s novel Dune.
“The mystery of life isn’t a problem to be solved, it’s a reality to be experienced.”
It so flawlessly synopsizes Modern Vampires’ worldview that my mind involuntarily summons it whenever I hear any of any one of these twelve songs. Each has an unabashed sense of awe that radiates in all directions, a fire in its belly that refuses to die. Maintaining their exterior, Vampire Weekend turn the big questions over in their heads without a hint of exasperation that what they’re asking is, at its core, unknowable. The journey, and the ability to ask these questions in the first place, is what matters to them.
In their early days, Vampire Weekend’s simultaneously worldly and youthful sound was an intriguing contradiction. Their bookishness was just target practice for cynics in the past, but here it grows into something wonderful and entirely theirs. There’s genuine wisdom, curiosity and insight here, delivered with a sleight of hand that makes you forget just exactly how serious Vampire Weekend are about making art. Everything is more concentrated and vivid, the eccentric trains of thought accessibly mapped out. Credit to Rostam Batmanglij, whose tasteful and playful co-production work with Ariel Rechtshaid keeps these attentively broached but heavy themes from capsizing the songs. Even if he is actually almost old enough to be convincingly nostalgic (“Old flames, they can warm you tonight”), Ezra Koenig’s eloquent soul searching is like nothing else heard this year. Nestled in between intimate memories of decaying romance ("Hannah Hunt", "Everlasting Arms") and lovely poetic nothings ("Diane Young"), the conversations with the Almighty ("Ya Hey", "Worship You", "Unbelievers") are the most remarkable. Religion is by its very nature an exclusionary practice, but Koenig doesn’t see it that way. Here, the secret is an open source. And once you're in on it, it becomes increasingly clear that Modern Vampires is in fact extraordinarily deep, intellectually nourishing music masquerading brilliantly as pop. [Brendan Frank]
01 Kanye West - Yeezus
Kanye West has left his peers in the dust. Since dropping the hugely influential 808s and Heartbreak, he’s been following a beautifully dark and twisted muse. It’s up for debate whether his two most recent solo albums should even be called rap music. West may have pioneered a bold new genre, one that seamlessly channels rap through a rock structure (unlike the ghastly rap-rock wave of the late-90s, which merely superimposed the former onto the latter). Time will tell.
All the while, he’s alienated swaths of casual listeners, ceding mainstream superstardom to the likes of Drake and former-mentor Jay Z. Devoted fans and music critics regularly gush about his art, but that’s cold comfort for West. The media largely treat him as little more than a reliable loudmouth, and Grammy voters remain scandalously indifferent to his sonic trailblazing. Worse yet, fashion executives take months to answer phone calls about his idea for leather jogging pants. Yes, the very leather jogging pants you’re wearing right now!
This, to put it mildly, drives him nuts. West is convinced he’s our Howard Roark, casting his pearls at the world without getting even a pork chop in return. It’s a sentiment he repeats every chance he gets. When I caught his operatic Yeezus tour in DC a few weeks ago, he ranted twice (with the aid of Auto-Tune), about how any failure to recognize his talent amounted to a cosmic injustice. I nodded along in agreement, even cheered here and there. But such public tantrums make it increasingly difficult to hold West up as the preeminent mad genius he most definitely is. I’m not a certified mental health professional by any means. But Kanye West – who likens himself to the Christian messiah on the title of his latest album, and then declares himself an outright deity on its most-quoted track – nevertheless appears to be a god consumed by an inferiority complex.
This fundamental tension between unbridled ego and a desperate need for acknowledgment produces a high-voltage current, one that electrifies Yeezus. Despite its overall assault, it’s the album I’ve returned to most this year (by far). What could have been a harrowing, forty-minute roar is instead tempered by West’s pop instincts – which take the form of finely curated samples (such as Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit”), gorgeous original vocals (by Frank Ocean, Justin Vernon, and even Chief Keef), and a joyous finale (“Bound 2”). The result is an expertly calibrated pageant of contrasts: ache and catharsis, rage and splendor, noise and melody.
Yeezus’ cover art – if you can call it that – has become instantly iconic. It makes perfect sense that it's just a naked jewel case, embellished with a small orange sticker. Clear plastic packaging guards the disc from damage, but its treasure remains on full display. Artwork, after all, requires a frame. [Peter Tabakis]