My Favorite Albums of 2013

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10.
Baths
Obsidian

This album achieves success in my book for a few reasons that seem to draw me to “these types” of albums time and time again. For one, it’s an album from an artist I had little interest in before this album. I had heard some things from Baths, didn’t really gel with it, and was ready to pass. For whatever reason, likely a mood I was hunting, I listened to Obsidian and was sold almost immediately. The other is that this really works (and perhaps ONLY works) as an album versus merely a series of tracks. While that’s a pretty romantic idea for a record to function like that, it’s usually just not realistic. So, while I wouldn’t necessarily pull a song from this and have you listen to it, somehow—all strung together—they make an excellent listening experience. It’s a greasy album. Dark but slick, a little dirty, a bit strange but mostly familiar.

9. 
Eminem
The Marshall Mathers LP2

It’s no secret that I love Eminem. I look forward to new albums, new singles, new anything, really. So when this long awaited part 2 to the long praised Marshall Mathers LP came out, I was there with open arms to greet it. Now, I know. I know Eminem is too old and too angry and too mean and too corny and too whatever else. But, the man is a lyrical master and a living legend, and so long as he’s making albums I’ll be faithfully checking them out. Not a ton of people I can say that for, and I think it’s special when someone has that ability. On top of his staying power, and perhaps in part to what causes it, it’s plain silly how well he can arrange and rearrange the basic words he’s used every album up to this point to say something new in a new way. Truly impressive. It’s a fun album with lots of zany word smithing and a fair share of topical ranting. Standard Eminem stuff. 

I should be clear in one thing—this is not an excellent album. It’s one of my favorite records from the year, but not because it works excellently together,(like Obsidian!) but because it’s jam packed with enough great content to carry itself as a really great sum of parts. It’s likely too long, ordered strangely, and features too many of those “too_____” moments. But, all of that being true, I have no problems with albums being shipped this way. Sometimes it works, and for me, this is one of those times. Get deep into this album and really appreciate the lyrical stuff and this can take you for a fun ride.
 

8.
Bombino
Nomad

Nomad is so choc-full-of-attitude it’s pretty hard not to like. But not the kind of meaningless angst we’ve come to mistake for atiitude. This all feels very purposeful and articulate. It took all of this bottled sass and stuck it through a wood chipper to spit out this funky mulch of pure grit. He’s been described as “desert” blues and that’s as geographically accurate as it is sonically. Aside from his compelling backstory—which is absolutely compelling, look it up, we’re talking about living in a place that banned guitars—the music actually does stand for itself. It’s a pretty shuffling album, lots of movement, and lots of gears grinding. But because of this dynamism, each song, while relatively short, packs much power and drive even though—and this is a kicker—the whole thing is sung in Tamashek. I’ve written before about my interest and love for instrumental music, and the some of the reasons why I love that apply to why I love this, but I will say there is a divide here that needs crossing. However, despite the language barrier, there is little time spent feeling distant from what it is happening, and by the time the second verse of the first song comes along you’re already singing along. Impossibly.

7.
Ducktails
The Flower Lane

For as big a fan of Real Estate I’ve been, I’ve been a somewhat small (microscopic) fan of Ducktails. Which is likely why I love this album as much as I do! Ducktails has always been fine, I had little interest, but it was cool over there doing it’s own thing. However, on this album the production quality has been amped, the structure to the songwriting is much, much, stronger than it has been, and it sounds much fuller. All of these things drew me right to it and I got down with it in a big way. It’s lazy at times (in a good way), a little shmoozy (also in a good way), and teasing constantly between chill and electric. It’s a cocktail of an album for sure. 

6.
White Denim
Corsicana Lemonade

White Denim has been impressing me for a while now, but nothing of theirs really struck me as being great until this album. This album seems to have a stronger, more clear vision than anything to this point. It’s focused and contained and because of that there is payoff. They’re an interesting group to me because of their obvious comparisons to groups like Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers, which I think makes them insatiably fun right from the get go. But on top of just being fun, they are also equal parts raucous and beautiful. I’m often attracted to things that are fun, because it has immediate satisfaction. Every year I love more pop singles than I can count for this reason, but often they lack the beauty that something that would perhaps be less fun but more introspective and thoughtful might have. This album achieves both of these notions—a feat for sure—and makes listens and re-listens a real joy.

5.
Kanye West
Yeezus

Enjoying Kanye West means putting up with Kanye West. A task that at times can be difficult. Something that seems to be a hang up for some, and something I’ve learned to overcome. But I’m here to promise you it’s worth it. Beneath the strangeness of his often shifting personas, and actually somewhere above his god complex, he’s making music that pushing the genre to a place with no bounds. You have to admire his confidence in himself and what he’s doing and his relentlessness to settle for anything but the what he deems the best. And with an attitude like that, you get a guy who’s last two albums are some of the best in rap, certainly recently, and perhaps ever. Bold, right? But maybe not untrue. MBDTF was an evolution of everything he’s been doing and prompted a shift in rap music and I think Yeezus is doing the same. I have a serious fascination with artists who can produce quality music and maintain a level of super stardom. It’s the same reason I find Arcade Fire fascinating. One of the same reasons I love The Beatles. It’s easier to make excellent music when you’re (relatively) unknown and can do whatever you want. But when you’re at the level of notoriety that Kanye West is, there is expectation and spotlights on everything you do. I can’t speak to whether that makes things harder or easier for him being in that position, but the scenario of stardom and no drop off in quality is something that is a very compelling storyline in any artist who’s working under those conditions. 
 
I really started to love this album once I heard the story of how the production process went down. There was apparently a ton of stripping down and a real desire to take away as much as possible before the songs didn’t work anymore. I love that. Again, I think a decision like that at his level is a big deal. It’s exciting to think of the things he’ll do next given the path he’s been on recently. For all his idiotic comments about being a creative genius, if he keeps turning out stuff like this, I think we’ll all have to revisit that idea with a new heart and really question the validity to that.

 

4.
Mutual Benefit
Love’s Crushing Diamond

This album quietly snuck up on me. I don’t think you could describe it in any other way, actually. Nothing about this album is bold or shouting. It’s calm, soothing, caring, and relaxed. I spent many a day listening to this album on repeat just floating away. It’s warm and inviting. It’s the music equivalent of a country house on a lake. Picking blueberries. Making lunch. Opening a window to let some air in. It’s all those (wonderful) things. This may be the moodiest album I listened to this year, which for me became a bit of a blanket I could pull up when I needed it. While most albums can achieve that in some way, this does that remarkably strong considering it’s softness.
 
I think this album has a lot of the charm and sincerity that I found on something like Youth Lagoon’s “The Year Of Hibernation”. There is similarity between the two, though not in sound entirely, but rather more in emotion. This is definitely an album ready to fill in emotional cracks of the listener, which I think is really special. For an album so seemingly simple, it’s surprising how much there is in each composition. Lots of thought and lots of heart.
 

3.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
II

This record was an instant win for me. I connected with it for it’s poppy sensibilities woven into 60’s tinged psych and fuzz funkiness. There’s plenty of sweet moments throughout, but none too strong  as to never let you get too deeply into the groove of a certain singular vibe, something I enjoyed. It keeps you on your toes as a listener and allows you to sort of wade in the flow of the shifting landscape. It’s a warm feeling record with plenty of nostalgic flares. Think Lonerism meets The Moon And Antarctica.
 
This record absolutely wins the “Gets Better With Every Listen” award of 2013. While it’s easily enjoyed on first listens, there’s much to be revealed in sequential returns. What initially seems simple becomes a bit more complex, and what first feels routine becomes extraordinary. Many of the riffs and crunchy melodies seem to stick with you for days on end, and the actual guitar playing is something that is impressively strange, hard to nail down a specific influence or style, a bit scattered, but totally awesome. Perhaps my favorite part of the record as a whole is that feels a bit beat up. Imperfect and rough like old barn wood. With this gritty shell, when the jolly pop shines though it makes for an excellent mix that covers the whole thing in a bizarre spit shine that I just love.
 

2.
Vampire Weekend
Modern Vampires Of The City

In what kind of world am I living where I am not not only listening to a Vampire Weekend record, but loving it? 2013, baby. I’m finally willing to admit that I had unfairly written of Vampire Weekend since first hearing Oxford Comma for really no reason at all. If I had to root that distaste in something it was thatI just found them corny I suppose. But, stupidly, I was forming an opinion on a band I didn’t really know much about and worse, a band I didn’t listen to. So as they continued to put out albums, my lack of listening and continuation of annoyance with them went on. But when Modern Vampires Of The City came out and I was gearing up for another year of not listening to an album from Vampire Weekend, I began to see a few articles popping up that were each calling out people like me for hating on them without actually listening to them. It was a fair enough argument and a piece of me wondered if what I was doing was wrong. I mean, of course it’s wrong in the sense of forming an uninformed opinion. But was my opinion wrong? Would it change once I actually listened? Being curious about this, I decided to see if I was off kilter and boy, off kilter was I!
 
I’m yet to find out whether Vampire Weekend has always been good or whether they got good on this record, but this record, undeniably, is fantastic. It’s so well paced, so well planned, and so grown up. None of these were things I had thought of them to this point. (Again, I’ve yet to make my way backwards into their discography, so it’s hard to tell where they’re improving and where I’m just late too the game.) So forgetting the Paul Simon likenesses (which I once felt should be used against them), the name (both for the band and the album) I could do without, the truth is that they made a really excellent record and a believer out of me. This taught me to approach these types of bands a little more carefully than I have been. They are in a tricky spot. Not quite Arcade Fire level but certainly more than a Ducktails level for example, leaving them in a place that makes judgement a bit tougher. Until you actually listen. Whoops.
 
 

1.
Kurt Vile
Wakin On A Pretty Daze

Whoever thought kicking an album off with a nine and half minute song is a bad idea is by all means likely correct. But Kurt Vile did it anyway and proved us all wrong. Not in that it’s either a good idea of a bad idea, but that it doesn’t matter when the song is Wakin On A Pretty Day. With the first chord of that song, you’re launched into a pretty daze right then and that nine minutes could be nine hours and it wouldn’t much matter. Kurt soon joins in lazily as only Kurt could do with a floppy melody that sort of melts on top of the cloud-like song like provolone and that sets the par for the course. As the record progresses the daze only gets stronger and the cloudiness engulfs you. Like all his other albums, this has his signature atmospheric vapor pumping its lifeblood, but this time he’s created something much clearer than previous efforts. That’s a common theme in my attraction to albums—artists like who make albums I like finally hitting a nerve and making something I really love.

For all the reasons I’m a fan of Kurt Vile—the hazy attitude of each song, the thick airiness of his voice, the pulling between seeming cool and being cool, the tug of war between being serious and being flippant—this album is a success. But what really brings this album to life for me is a little understanding of Kurt as a person. Which has nothing to do with this album specifically, but also I don’t know how to separate those things from each other. He’s a man with a family living in a changing world and trying to do the best that he can while balancing music and family and his own ideals. We all have these struggles, but to see someone approach them so honestly and purposefully, makes me really appreciate what he’s doing. It makes me listen to his lyrics in a different way. Oh, he’s a little like me. On “Goldtone” the last, longest, and maybe best track he sings “Been livin’ my life on the run, from day one. Every day is “hey, so are they.” A classic Vile-ism if there ever was one. (This album is full of them.) An introspective lyric with much room to relate to it. The lyrics itself is about relatability. Identifying the feelings we share and calling them out as shared feelings. An interesting approach to thinking about how we interact with each other. Much like his masterful songwriting has been doing forever, these songs are excellent and beautiful to listen to and they don’t require much of you to enjoy them, but when you are ready to dive in—and you will get to that point—there is a deep hole of meaning and thoughtfulness to get lost in.  

 

I LIKED IT

 

Arcade Fire
Reflektor

Unsurprisingly, I found this record to be another success from a band who only creates successful albums. Lots of ambition, lots of smarts, and plenty of great vibes on an album that without needing to, pushed Arcade Fire’s bounds just a little farther. I have so much appreciation for their ability to maintain interest, uphold quality, and continue on their tear of success. Fascinating and equally enjoyable!

 

Darkside
Psychic 

Not usually a huge fan of this type of noisy blippy avant garde type of experimental stuff, and I can’t say this made me any more interested in the “genre” as a whole, but for whatever reason, this really worked for me. The guitar work on it is particularly excellent and I think it helped pull together some of the aimlessness I tend to feel often runs rampant on these types of projects. It served as a rockin’ glue to keep this together at it’s moments where it felt most likely to burst. The teetering on combustion can be as easily annoying as it can be entertaining, but I feel like it was done boomingly on this album. 

 

Dads
Pretty Good EP 

By far my favorite EP of 2013. Straight up power and sweat crammed into one tiny little EP. The heaviest (and maybe also the lightest?) stuff they’ve done to this point, which didn’t necessarily seem like a selling point to me on paper, but on listen, it works remarkably well. This is a direction I hope they continue to chase as this is their strongest stuff yet. 

 

Katy Perry
Prism

I’m waiting on the day a mainstream pop album can really be appreciated as an album as opposed to a series of songs and singles. I don’t think we’ve reached that yet, and instead of throwing a stink about it, I’ve transitioned myself to appreciate these pop albums for what they are. The fact that they can be a series of would be singles speaks to the way people consume pop music. I’m more likely to listen to Katy Perry on a car ride with friends than I am at home alone. (Though, I’ve done both.) So, that being the case, it’s interesting to see how we’ve evolved in receiving these types of albums. Personally, I don’t think we can call something like this great until it functions as a whole and rids itself of the excessive filler songs that all of these albums can’t seem to let go. Prism is guilty of this, but at least aware of itself. Artpop doesn’t know it’s doing it, and neither does Beyoncé, ugh, don’t get me started on Beyoncé. All of that being said, pop music really has one function and that’s to be fun. And so, so, so much of Prism is incredibly fun. 

 

I DIDN’T GET IT

 

HAIM
Days Are Gone

It was fine. It was perfectly fine, and there are plenty of great moments. But can we PLEASE knock it off with the pop groups masquerading under something more meaningful than they are? This is cry for artists to go all in on what they are doing. HAIM would benefit from calling a rose a rose and just truly embracing their pop tendencies and seeing where that could take them. OR back off just a hair and make things a little more intesting and authentic than what they tried to do with Days Are Gone. I don’t have much faith in them being around too long, I think the foot in both camps will be problematic for their longevity. 

The Haxan Cloak
Excavation

I mean, c’mon. What is this?

 

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

 

Little Comets
Life Is Elsewhere

This record was one of my favorites of the year (and certainly my most listened to) until I realized it actually didn’t come out this year, but instead late 2012. Bummer. But regardless, this little group from England made this shimmering little record that is as bouncy as it is wiry. It’s upbeat, bubbling, and was the go to source for motivation when I was getting work done for many times in the past few months.
 

John Fahey

Finally gave this guitar god some much needed listening after years of being pretty unfamiliar. When it comes to American style guitar playing, he’s hard to leave out of the conversation. In fact, it’s hard to have a conversation without it being somewhat Fahey focused. Anyway, really enjoyed listening to him and pretending I was on a train in the 60s. 

 

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