Tuesday, December 31, 2013

the top 25 best albums of 2013

And now we're down to the final list - my top twenty-five albums of 2013. This year, I reviewed 135 albums - and frankly, I should have done more. But I feel it's a plenty big sample size to discuss my choices, and all of these earned their slots on this list. I'll also try to keep this as quick as I possibly can - I've already talked about all of these albums in detail, and you should all check out my reviews if you want a more in-depth discussion. Also, my list isn't exactly going to correspond with common critical consensus - there are albums I have picked that have been ignored, and there are certain albums that some critics lauded that I didn't find nearly as strong. Got all that? Good, because we're not waiting any longer, let's GO!

25. Progressive rock and metal gets snubbed more often than it should - let's change that, shall we?

25. 'Desolation Rose' by The Flower Kings
Best Song: 'The Silent Masses'

Yes, it did deal more in arch concepts rather than devastating precise attacks, and no, it's not quite as good as Paradox Hotel, but Desolation Rose was The Flower Kings' attempt to ask tough questions about politics, media, religion, and humanity's place in the world, and if nothing else, the band absolutely kills it here. The melodies are rich and well-textured, the vocal interplay is phenomenal, and the band's upward looking optimism adds a real populist swell to an album that could have very quickly become preachy and insufferable. Yes, it's not quite as instrumentally brilliant as Dream Theater's self-titled album (which is the unofficial 26th entry on this list), but it has a tighter focus, the hooks are striking and memorable and the climaxes are a shade stronger. Nice work, gentlemen, looking forward to more.

24. Ugh... well, might as well get this one over with.

24. 'Modern Vampires of the City' by Vampire Weekend
Best Song: 'Worship You'

Let me state right out of the gate that I have personal issues with Vampire Weekend. For me, they're a very good band with a fantastic gift for hooks and intelligent songwriting that have a lot of problems with artistic framing (their weird defensiveness about privilege just rubs me the wrong way). And while Modern Vampires of the City does take steps to acquire something of a populist spirit in discussing the problems of modern youth with great detail, it's a lot of text without subtext, a lot of well-structured statements about myopic detachment, but by mirroring that detachment in delivery and instrumentation, the album loses impact. Fortunately for everyone, a lot of that text was still excellently written with occasional nuggets of wit and insight and was paired with phenomenal instrumentation, which was enough to land Modern Vampires of The City on this list. 

23. The artist behind this album was threatening his label that he'd make it for years. If I was his label, I'd have taken him up on the threat years ago.

23. 'The Bluegrass Album' by Alan Jackson
Best Song: 'Blue Ridge Mountain Song'

It can be awkward when some artists experiment with other genres, but for Alan Jackson, he steps into bluegrass like a comfortable pair of jeans and delivers an excellent (albeit a tad slow) album along the way. The instrumentation and production is organic, textured, and delivered with superb skill, Alan Jackson's delivery is emotive and passionate, and his songwriting manages to fit within traditional bluegrass without sounding like a throwback. Yeah, for most bluegrass fans, the tempo is a little slow, but I'd take brilliant songwriting from a master over speed any day. 

22. I think I'm the only critic who covered this album. There are a number of things wrong with that, and the fact this album reached my list should be evidence enough.

22. 'After The Fact' by LMNO & Evidence
Best Song: 'The Correction'

Yes, I know what this sounds like - backpacker rap that's apparently too underground for even Youtube. But LMNO's serious technical chops, layered and detailed songwriting, and Evidence's top-of-the-line production lends the album more unique flavour and personality than any dozen luxury or trap hip-hop albums I've heard this year. And that's not even touching on the subject matter, which sees the shallowness of most mainstream rap and scoffs, looking back to the past not with nostalgia, but a grim acknowledgement that things have only seemed to deteriorate since this sort of rap was the norm. Either way, After The Fact is phenomenal, and both LMNO and Evidence deserve a lot more support.

21. Who would have thought one of the best rock albums of the year would have come from a band not taking themselves nearly as seriously and having, *gasp*, fun?

21. 'Lightning Bolt' by Pearl Jam
Best Song: 'Lightning Bolt

It's Pearl Jam's best album since the mid-90s, and yet it reflects the vast departure in sound from the grunge of their debut - and really, it works for them. In a year where good rock albums were thematically looking to shake up the established formula, Lightning Bolt was one of the stronger ones, not quite nuanced or all that deep but buoyed by Eddie Vedder's surge of energy and some of the most radio-friendly upbeat hooks of their career. And while I wish the album had been able to maintain the kickass tempo that drives the best tracks on the album, Lightning Bolt still manages to strike with flair and style that should embarrass younger bands into silence.

20. Sure, it's a late entry, but that doesn't mean it doesn't belong on this list.

20. 'Parts of Speech' by Dessa
Best Song: 'Fighting Fish'

Dessa's 'Parts of Speech' might not be her strongest album or most strikingly well-written, but it still manages to cook with a lot of passion and phenomenal songwriting. A collection of loosely linked short stories exploring lost connections and the choices to either revive them or leave them in the dust, Dessa may have opted to use more of an R&B flavour over rap, but she still manages to make it work thanks to her emotionally compelling voice, strikingly intelligent lyrics, and a passionate undercurrent that adds desperate immediacy to the entire record. I checked this album out late, but I'm more than glad that I did.

19. There were few independent acts I checked out this year that had the polish, wit, and depth of this act. Hell, there were few acts anywhere that did.

19. 'Aims' by Vienna Teng
Best Song: 'Landsailor' ft. Glen Phillips

That Vienna Teng isn't selling out stadiums with her brand of soulful yet energetic indie pop is a goddamn crime, and Aims provided another fresh batch of evidence to the pile. With a polished grasp for powerful melodies, an a capella sensibility that allowed the creation of exquisite harmonies, and lyrics exploring adventure and technology with striking nuance and impeccable framing, Vienna Teng proved that layered, detailed, intelligent pop music is still an option on the table. You just need to level up and get it.

18. It's an open secret in synthpop that most of it doesn't have to make sense or be about anything as long as the music kicks ass. So when bands go above and beyond, it's noticed.

18. 'The Bones of What You Believe' by CHVRCHES
Best Song: 'Recover'

Make no mistake, CHVRCHES are not playing it safe, with an album statement nothing less than taking various targets down a peg for their hubris and showing how their dreams are nothing but worthless ash and dust. Yet it's the album that also shows the willingness to second-guess its own mission statement, provide flavour and nuance and second chances, and then show the hapless target finally reaching the personal revelation he desperately needed. The fact that the album was damn near amazing with strident and crisp instrumentation and production matched with Lauren Mayberry's strident and assertive delivery only made the story all the sweeter. For a debut synthpop album, you can't exactly ask for more than that.

17.  The fact that this album wasn't a failure is a miracle in and of itself. The fact that it turned out as great as it did says something in and of itself.

17. 'The Marshall Mathers LP 2' by Eminem
Best Song: 'So Far...'

Many acts make 'sequels' to previous albums as just a way to drum up hype - Eminem chose to make a follow-up record that not only returned to the thematic progressions and dangling threads left after the first Marshall Mathers LP, but to expand on them with the benefit of added context and nuance. The album is bombastic, frequently hilarious, and yet shockingly nuanced, framing in plain view the subtext that has long underscored Eminem's work: that Slim Shady is a vile, hateful, disgusting creature no matter how insanely talented he is, and the fact that we not only listened but gave him fame and success says far more about our culture than it does him. Just as Slim Shady is Eminem's warped reflection, it's ours as well. And yet despite that, it's still a great album and perhaps Eminem's most optimistic and brightest yet... so in a world where so many people are looking downwards, what the hell does that say?

16. It doesn't take much to sell out. It takes a ton to use that 'sell-out' as the underlying thematic progression of your album and turn it into a satirical slam dunk.

16. 'Icon For Hire' by Icon For Hire
Best Song: 'Counting On Hearts'

Icon For Hire's left turn towards electronic rock and metal did alienate some fans, but the album turned into something special when it turned the entire shift in direction into the theme of the album, showing that not only could the band make great music in a more electronically-driven vein, but provide plenty of biting, punk-inspired commentary on the shift, answering the critical jibes before they're even made. As an album, it's a showcase for Ariel's incredible range as a performer (with more talent for hip-hop than you'd eve expect), and the band's sheer earnestness in their presentation makes it clear that if they were going to 'sell out', they were going to do it in the best way possible - and they pulled it off. Don't be dismayed by the fact this group is on a Christian label - Icon For Hire is so much better.

15. There are some acts that are just looking to entertain - this guys aimed to do the exact opposite, and they still managed to make it work.

15. 'The Terror' by The Flaming Lips
Best Song: 'Be Free, A Way'

There were plenty of acts that tried to build their appeal this year by being 'scary' or 'threatening', and most of them sucked. The Flaming Lips went for something more cerebral and chilling with 'The Terror', flipping the idealistic acid high of their former albums into the alienating chill of the acid freakout. An album that explores human weakness and how the loss of love can turn you into a wretched shell of a human being, all exposed through half-heard lyrics, droning thunder, and an ominpresent feel of unearthly noise and menacing cacophony, 'The Terror' was the album I played at Halloween - because it scared the crap out of me in the best possible way.

14. If you had only listened to mainstream country throughout this year, you'd have thought that no women besides Taylor Swift and the token Miranda Lambert or Carrie Underwood were successful. Let's change that mistaken impression, shall we?

14. '12 Stories' by Brandy Clark
Best Song: 'What'll Keep Me Out Of Heaven'

I'll admit that Brandy Clark's debut probably didn't resonate with me because it is aimed at a slightly different demographic, but I'll still recognize incredibly solid quality and real texture when I see it. With 90s Reba McEntire-esque production, instrumentation, and vocals but with songwriting far superior, Brandy Clark's 12 Stories are vulnerable, emotionally gripping, and shockingly relatable in their nuanced presentation of life for modern women, and with the confidence to take real risks in framing and subject matter, it's easily one of the best country albums of the year. Looking forward to more from you, Brandy, because 12 Stories was something special this year.

13. I've always shunned the term 'guilty pleasure', but if I'm looking at albums that would appeal to me in all the right ways without even trying... yeah, this one fits the bill.

13. 'Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action' by Franz Ferdinand
Best Song: 'Treason! Animals'

Yes, it's all so much late 70s kitsch and camp, frequently over-the-top and soaked in a retro style that seems the antithesis of modern cool, but I don't care, Franz Ferdinand's fourth album just works for me in its flagrant embrace of theatricality almost for its own sake, fused with killer pop hooks, phenomenal bass lines, and lead singer Alex Kapranos' most varied performance yet. It's an album that frequently feels paranoid, delusional, and soaked in unrequited ego, but that's part of the point - the earnest emotions are tempered in sarcasm and the pompous lunacy is embraced just enough to prove that sometimes, insanity can be kind of awesome if you believe in it just enough. 

12. I've been cheering for this band since the beginning - and oh god, was it worth it.

12. 'The Brilliancy EP' by The Brilliancy
Best Song: 'Can't Take It Away'

Yeah, it's a 6-song EP, but goddamn it if it didn't earn this spot for sheer pop rock greatness. Refreshingly organic pop rock with a great melodic focus and talent across the board, The Brilliancy easily leaped above their immediate comparison of Jimmy Eat World (who released a rather subpar album this year) with better production, a stronger vocal performance from Austin Leadley, and strikingly sharp songwriting that sticks with traditional subject matter, but does it extremely well. This band has a level of professionalism, polish and skill you rarely see from a debut rock act, and I would not be surprised if you don't hear a lot more from them very soon.

11. I may have said a number of times that acoustic indie acts aren't usually my thing. Here's the huge exception to the rule.

11. 'Dream River' by Bill Callahan
Best Song: 'Summer Painter'

The best way to describe this album is poetic, as Bill Callahan trades his typical melancholy for a lighter touch on this richly textured, incredibly detailed album that managed to really hit me in ways I wasn't expecting. An album filled with ongoing motifs and symbolism surrounding central themes of travel, lacking a true home and little connections, Dream River is an album that requires effort and patience to completely take in, but my god, is it worth it. The former frontman of Smog has made something quietly beautiful and really something special, and everyone should hear it.

10. I said this would make the list when I reviewed it, and I wasn't lying.

10. 'The Electric Lady' by Janelle Monae
Best Song: 'Dance Apocalyptic'

No, it's not quite as wildly experimental as The ArchAndroid, but Janelle Monae's venture back in time to 70s and 80s funk, disco, and R&B pays amazing dividends on this energetic, amazingly fun and yet brilliantly poignant album. I'll admit once again that I'm not the primary audience for this album, but here it matters even less because Janelle Monae's tale of romance stretches beyond race, gender, and sexuality, and it's fused with great music that has a ton of flair and gorgeous melody, not to mention guest stars that actually contribute well to the ongoing story. And Janelle Monae's vocal performance might just be her best yet, taking material that is clearly deeply personal and performing it with nuance, soul, and a ton of passion. Do not miss this album, it is AWESOME.

9. I honestly thought this would have ended up a bit higher on my list, but it definitely belongs here all the same.

9. 'Random Accessed Memories' by Daft Punk
Best Song: 'Touch'

Daft Punk's long love letter to the music of the past wasn't just a throwback to the era of funk and disco, but an exploration of the album concept - and it was incredible. Easily the best-produced album of the year, Daft Punk prove yet again that they have the uncanny knack for bringing people together in euphoric appreciation of a pair of robots just trying to connect with the world, and in the process they made one of the most emotionally compelling albums of the year. And paralleling the creative process with the search for love and connection and showing the circular feedback relationship between artists and their audience, Daft Punk said more about the craft of making music this year than any other act - and still made us want to dance.

8. Granted, Daft Punk weren't the only band to call back to the past with powerful results...

8. 'Silence Yourself' by Savages
Best Song: 'No Face'

A love letter to post-punk that seems to disregard traditional expressions of love, Savages' debut album was blunt, curt, to the point, and seething with contempt at those who scorned their sex-positive embrace of third-wave feminism. Every instrument from the fuzz-saturated guitar riffs to the menacing bass lines to the surprisingly intricate drum sections contributes to the tightly controlled compositions that seem like they'd explode at any second, leading to a bleak, nerve-wracking tension that underscores each track, and Jehnny Beth's Siouxie-esque gravitas only underscores the darkness of the album. Gothic, grimy, and yet addictive and compelling, you don't often see debuts this confident and strong.

7. So you're a band that's been around since the late 60s and you're on your nineteenth album - what do you do?

7. 'Now What?!' by Deep Purple
Best Song: 'Above And Beyond'

Well, I advise doing what Deep Purple did, which is make one of the best albums of their career rife with solid songwriting, fantastic hooks, plenty of experimentation, and some of the best technical musicianship of the year. I'm not joking, this is a musician's album, and some of the time-signature shifting and incredible solos suggest a borderline progressive approach to crafting great rock songs. And yet, the entire album blows through it with a comfort and skill that only comes from veteran performers at their peak and who are trying anything and everything, including a goth rock tribute to Vincent Price which reaches Steinman-esque levels of mad epicness - not because they have to, but because why the hell not? Criminally ignored by most, Deep Purple's Now What?! is one of the band's best records and if the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame requires any more evidence to why this band should have been inducted years ago, this is it.

6. And in the spirit of veterans trying something new and awesome, we have this.

6. 'Run The Jewels' by Run The Jewels
Best Song: 'Sea Legs'

It's an album that has a simple focus, but does exactly what it needs to do: assert how Killer Mike and El-P are better than their competition. And not because of wealth or status, but because they're better rappers and producers and brought intellect and phenomenally layered wordplay to a genre that didn't always have it this year. And while we can all wish that both men had opted to aim a little higher in their righteous smackdown of anything and everything that got in their way, Run The Jewels is still the best hip-hop album of the year in terms of intricate production, hard-hitting wordplay, and real moments of potent insight if you're willing to hunt for it. And El-P, Killer Mike, you keep threatening to make another one of these albums... yeah, we'll take you up on that any day of the week!

5. And now for something completely different, a man who has convinced himself he is decidedly not awesome in the slightest, and yet made one of the best albums of the year.

5. 'Trouble Will Find Me' by The National
Best Song: 'Demons'

It's difficult to make albums exploring depression, misery, and existential ennui without sounding insufferable, but somehow this year The National cracked the code, paring back the gloss and chamber pop of High Violet into something rougher and closer to their country roots - and dear god, it worked. The band frames the downward spiral appropriately through a series of vignettes that show the mistakes made and trouble found by the narrator, all delivered through Matt Berninger's soulful delivery and The National's smart balance between quiet melancholy and moments that roiled with force and real drama. And with the songwriting never better and the nuanced framing impeccably placed, The National delivered one of the darkest albums of their career - and yet one of their most relatable and human.

4. But sometimes you need a change from stagnant depression - and Josh Homme has the answer.

4. '...Like Clockwork' by Queens of the Stone Age
Best Song: 'I Sat By The Ocean'

This was an album about reaching a tipping point and snapping out of inertia, creating something fresh and new and potent and moving on with your life, and Queens of the Stone Age did just that with ...Like Clockwork, one of the best albums of their critically acclaimed career. Unparalleled instrumentation, Josh Homme showing off his impressive range vocally and in songwriting, riffs that stuck in the memory unlike any others this year, and an album progression that had shocking insight into the process and emotions of breaking free, ...Like Clockwork felt like anything but its title, and that's a high compliment indeed.

3. This album won me over fairly early this year, and it's the one I always held up when people said country music wasn't worth defending or reviewing. Because this album was living proof why they are wrong.

3. 'Same Trailer, Different Park' by Kacey Musgraves
Best Song: 'Follow Your Arrow'

In a year where mainstream country got drunk, macho and stupid, Kacey Musgraves took a third path and found a folk-drenched version of country that had texture, insight, and reality that seemed far beyond her years, to say nothing of a grasp of technical songwriting chops and emotive delivery that go so far beyond a debut album. But the album goes for so much more than just beautifully composed and organic songs, but a progressive message and a slap upside the head to the traditional values and Southern pandering that lingers over country for good and ill. What makes matters even better is that Kacey's framing of the bleak, dusty rural inertia is honest and crushingly sad, as she admits she only has pieces of the answer and feels just as trapped. And yet, Kacey Musgraves represents something a lot bigger, even if it's just to mainstream country: she's a voice of hope and change, and hers was one of many that chimed in favour of traditional and neotraditional country this year. And considering she won 'New Artist Of The Year' at the CMAs, it looks like someone is finally listening.

2.  It was my most anticipated album of the year... and Arjen didn't disappoint.

2. 'The Theory of Everything' by Ayreon
Best Song: 'Phase III: Entanglement'

I'm still blown away to this day by The Theory of Everything, if only because of its sheer ambition and scope that rises to the heights of Arjen Lucassen's writing career. It's not so much an album about finding a physics equation but about how geniuses communicate with the world, the benefits and costs of mind-expanding drugs, academic and intellectual rivalry, and ambitions that span family generations and the tremendous cost that is paid to achieve those ambitions. In that, Arjen has returned to the humanity of his masterpiece The Human Equation to deliver a monumental piece of symphonically gorgeous and incredibly moving progressive metal, and his all-star cast of singers and musicians deliver some of their best work ever. It's an album that dares to be intelligent and trusts the audience to keep up - and then brings a raw and beautifully composed portrait of humanity to display in ways that no other album achieved this year. I cannot stress how moving and beautiful I found this record, and it would have very nearly topped my list... except for one album that's been atop it almost the entire year.

1. It took five years and a change in line-up and style, but he did it again. And if you've been following my reviews this year, you already know what it is.

1. 'Push The Sky Away' by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds
Best Song: 'We Real Cool'

It is one of his most oblique, confusing, and impenetrable albums to date, a far cry from the straightforward bloodbath that was Murder Ballads or the heartbreak that spurred The Boatman's Call. It's an album that's uses sparse sound and minimalist affectations to draw you in and have you think about every word, painting a picture in muted, empty shades. It's an album where Nick Cave rarely raises his voice into the screaming howls of his last album or the Grinderman project, but cryptic whispers that mean more than they deign to tell, assuming the audience will get it.

And while it took listen after listen, each revealing something new, Push The Sky Away finally made sense: a stark, uncompromising painting of the modern human condition, touching on privacy, moral standards and the lack thereof, religion, the creative process, innocence lost, and humanity's sacrifice of thought and knowledge over data. An album that exposes that as we've soared higher and higher, we've become lesser and lesser, and Push The Sky Away does not shy away from exposing human frailties and weaknesses, in the audience, in society at large, and especially in Nick Cave himself. And yet, even with that, he whispers that we must keep going - because the sky's the limit, and even if its just rock and roll, we need to keep pushing, to push the sky away.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Push The Sky Away, the best album of 2013. Let's hope for more next year.

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