Sunday, December 22, 2013

Best 50 Albums of 2013

Once again, here are my top 50 albums of the year. I've also included a Spotify playlist with selected tracks from as many as albums that were available on there. The amount of good music out there is so overwhelming that there are probably another 50 albums that had a shot at cracking the list that I didn't have time for. My head will likely explode one year when doing this post. Until then, enjoy!

My top 250 singles of 2013 list should be up within a few days.

1. My Bloody Valentine - m b v

Who isn't a fan of Loveless? To this day, it stands as one of rock's seminal albums and no matter what the moment, it's usually in my top 5 of all time. It was with that excitement, shared along with so many other music fans around the world, that I was looking forward to My Bloody Valentine's follow-up to that album, which was 22 years in the making. So yes, this is coming from the perspective of someone who was destined to enjoy m b v in one fashion or another, but the record is its own kind of monster. No matter if you've never heard one strain of their blurred melodies or the jagged crunch of their feedback, nothing can be taken away from moments as gorgeous as "Who Sees You" and "Only Tomorrow," which are indeed awash in a familiar sea of haze, beauty and chaos, but no less effective in the 2010s than it was in the '90s. Beauty is actually the one word that keeps popping up in my head whenever I revisit this album and it's the most fitting. My Bloody Valentine has never been about "beauty" in the traditional sense where we perceive it to be something that's symmetrical and pleasant, but by using elements that are more fitting for a mosh pit or a surrealist painting, our senses are challenged for the better. We're left with a piece of work that alters the colors we see, that soothes amidst the dissonance and ultimately gives us new respect for waiting patiently.

2. Laura Mvula - Sing To The Moon

There's a majestic air surrounding the debut album of this British singer, one that feels grand in scope and royal in its delivery. Orchestral flourishes appear often and dramatically, matching the bold presence of Mvula's voice, only to dissolve delicately with the tension of theater. The playbook for Sing To The Moon is rooted in the past, bringing to mind the lusher moments in the catalogs of Nina Simone and Letta Mbulu, along with the multi-layered tenderness of The Beach Boys, but it never once feels like it's interested in giving you a history lesson. For the emotional tones that are touched upon here, the sounds of the classics fit amazingly and come off as natural. The musical arrangements here are no small order and it takes an artist with a complete control of grace and bombast to pull the whole thing together, which Laura Mvula does compellingly.

3. Disclosure - Settle

Even in the most extreme cases of my enthusiasm, I try to remain objective. I think discussions that challenge our stances are integral to the growth of art and how we relate to it. With that being said, I don't get some of the reasoning against Disclosure. They're making house music too mainstream. Their songs have traditional pop structures. They've got too many vocalists on their songs. I struggle to find anything negative about those traits. To sneer at house music aspiring to reach more than just the nightclubs by making it accessible is like saying that such crossover early '90s classics like Crystal Waters' "Gypsy Woman," Robin S.'s "Show Me Love" or Aly-Us' "Follow Me" were inessential recordings and they did more harm than good for the genre because Ron Trent wasn't getting as much airplay. The DNA strands of those songs (and many others from the 1990s) are found throughout Disclosure's debut album. There are definitely some basement-dweller beliefs to several scenes in electronic music and anyone who dares threaten climb up the stairs and crack the door open must not be making art or anything worthwhile. Settle isn't about art, nor does it need to be. It's all about tapping in to the most simplistic, primal instinct when the 4/4 beat of a bass drum and a skipping hi-hat collide in house, and that's to dance.

4. Goldfrapp - Tales Of Us

For all the glitz and glamor that has no doubt added to Goldfrapp's exposure over the years, they always seem to be in the zone when the pace is slowed down. My top two favorite albums from their discography are the ghostly Felt Mountain and the folk-inspired Seventh Tree. The duo's sixth album, Tales Of Us, shares a sonic kinship with those records, leaving behind the synthesizers for darker, string-filled textures. Tales of Us also finds Goldfrapp at their most romantic, with each song telling the story of different lovers that run the emotional gamut from deep-longing to sorrow. From Goldfrapp's perspective, romance doesn't always mean that a happy ending is involved or that everything surrounding it should be fanciful. This is the kind of the undying love that lives on in spite of loss or regret and all the heaviness of the heart that comes with it. It all makes for a quietly affecting listen.

5. Janelle Monáe - The Electric Lady

When I saw Janelle Monáe perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this past spring, I couldn't help but feel that I was watching someone who used to play dress-up as a kid embellish finally getting to act out with toys they've always wanted to play with. The joy with which she performed songs such as The Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" and Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger" was just as telling as their selections. Those songs are so full of life and are the type that easily lend themselves to exaggerated performances. It was almost as if she couldn't wait to perform them with a full orchestra the first chance she got. Despite being well-regarded enough to perform with the CSO and receiving universal critical acclaim, Monáe has yet to really be the big mainstream star that so many had predicted she'd become. Some have attributed this to a lack of openness within her music, constantly keeping her heart at bay while she hides behind her sci-fi leanings. Having been an early supporter of hers, I think we've more than seen the type of person that she is. Simply put, she's a theater kid. She takes enjoyment in trying on multiple disguises and perfecting the nuances that come with each. It's something she's likely been practicing her entire life and that unabashed energy is contagious when listening to her music. The Electric Lady continued on in that same vein of bouncing around between genres. "Ghetto Woman" is her chance to wear Stevie's shades. "Q.U.E.E.N." lets her prance around in Prince's heels. "It's Code" imagines her being the lead singer of The Jackson 5 and so on. Each spin of the album is like being on the otherside of her childhood mirror, only now the execution has caught up with the imagination.

6. José James - No Beginning No End

It's difficult not to think of D'Angelo's Voodoo during some of the more groove-heavy moments on No Beginning No End. After all, Pino Palladino, the bassist on Voodoo, contributes to the rhythm section here, as well as serving as producer. Voodoo is one of the great albums in recent memory to use groove in such a strongly hypnotic way and some of those trademarks can be heard all over tracks such as "It's All Over Your Body" and "Vanguard." While that album included the occasional experimental touch, José James plays it much more straightforward, giving NBNE the feel of extended foreplay. It's one of the sexiest albums I've heard in a few years, which would have already been halfway guaranteed with Palladino's involvement alone, but it's James' smoky whisper that eventually gets the lights turned down low. It's confident enough to never overdo it while channeling a subtle feminine carnality that recalls Meshell Ndegeocello whenever she reached for her lower register. To call it androgynous would paint an inaccurate picture when what James is doing is not as simple as the history of that word. By utilizing the sensitivity and tenderness that was familiar in most female-fronted classic soul, coupled with the low snarl of his voice, José James has added a new shade to the spectrum of sexy.

7. Jessy Lanza - Pull My Hair Back

The influence of Timbaland has been one of the recent developments in the indie world with artists such as Purity Ring and Liz taking inspiration from his late '90s output. The first instance I can recall of someone outside the mainstream making an impact using that familiar syncopated drum pattern was when Junior Boys dropped "Birthday" in 2004. Much of their debut, Last Exit, employed similar tactics, but they've since shied away from it for the most part. It's no surprise that one of the members, Jeremy Greenspan, was a co-producer on Pull My Hair Back and in a sense has found his Aaliyah in Jessy Lanza to create their own vision of the futuristic R&B that was first heard on One In A Million. Lanza proves herself to be perfectly game as the ice princess of a post-Timbo world, with a voice that's frosty and brimming with sensuality. The Aaliyah/Timbaland template is one that is well-tested and hard to disagree with, but it's the distinct spin that Lanza and Greenspan put on the formula that turns Pull My Hair Back from a potential tribute to something that feels entirely fresh.

8. Haim - Days Are Gone

California is one of the great exports that American music has given to the world. The idea of this magical world where the sun never sets has been fertile ground for pop music since the middle of the 20th century. Even for those that have never stepped foot on its beaches, one only need to turn to the music of The Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles and so on to be transported. Days Are Gone, the debut album from this trio of sisters, is probably one of the most authentically Califonian records I've heard in a while. It has all the recognizeable traits of the West Coast with its easygoing nature, penchant for catchy choruses, skipping guitar riffs and managing to always sound sunny even if things don't look optimistic. Fleetwood Mac's L.A. period is of course an obvious reference point (as if that weren't given away so delightfully by "The Wire" and "Honey & I") and it's a foundation that was likely inescapable for the Haim sisters who grew up in San Fernando Valley. Even with the slight traces of synth pop and R&B sprinkled in, there's never any doubt which part of the country the soul of this album resides in. The fact that Days Are Gone embodies the Golden State so much is not what makes it so special, but that it just happens to feature some of the best pop songwriting of 2013. Tracks like "My Song 5" and "Don't Save Me," just to name a few, explode with the kind of craft we see on a regular basis from some of today's established hitmakers, but done here with a unique helping of vitamn D.

9. Anna Calvi - One Breath

The tone of Anna Calvi's guitar is one of my current musical crushes. It crackles with the swampy familiarity of PJ Harvey back in the day, only it has more of a spookier rumble to it. On her self-tited debut, which cracked my top ten in 2011, her style of playing won me over in its quieter moments and it turns out she's just as enjoyable when things are ramped up on her second album. Not to say that her ghostly side has completely fallen by the wayside; "Sing To Me" and "The Bridge" are right in line with the haunting, cinematic edges that made me take notice of Calvi in the first place. One Breath is littered with abstract guitar stabs that have the dust of an old silent film but with the suspense of an Italian horror.

10. Smash Cast - Bombshell: The New Marilyn Musical From Smash

This may seem like a surprise, but if you were paying close attention, I did have "Let Me Be You Star" at #36 on my 2012 singles list. For all the flack that the television show these songs were taken from received, the one consistent shining beacon of quality was the music. That also shouldn't count as a surprise since that was handled by the Tony-winning duo of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, which no doubt played a part in me having watched every episode. By not living on the East Coast, I don't get the chance to see new Broadway shows in their first run, so I usually have to wait for national tours to catch up with the music. Smash was really the first time I was allowed the opportunity to enjoy a current musical firsthand, which is why showtunes don't pop up on my year-end list. Having said that, I would be lying to myself and everyone of you if I didn't have Bombshell in my top ten. I played it constantly not because I wanted to relive the show (although the musical numbers were wonderfully produced), but because it featured so many enjoyable songs from top to bottom. By basing a show on the life of icon Marilyn Monroe, Bombshell had an assortment of emotions that ranged from giddy ("The National Pastime") to somber ("Hang The Moon"). Add to that two talented vocalists in Megan Hilty and Katharine McPhee that handled most of the singing duties and it was a project that managed to best some Broadway shows at their own game. Another advantage Bombshell had over other soundtracks was that such a show would be near impossible to pull off on a stage and there would hardly be any time to rest for the actress in the role of Monroe. With the benefit of television, Bombshell was able to make good on the ambition of Smash, in one facet at least.

And the rest...

11. Waxahatchee - Cerulean Salt
12. Various Artists - After Dark 2
13. David Bowie - The Next Day 
14. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
15. Ebony Bones - Behold, A Pale Horse
16. Superchunk - I Hate Music
17. Kanye West - Yeezus
18. Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience
19. La Big Vic - Cold War
20. Charli XCX - True Romance
21. Tyler, The Creator - Wolf
22. Paramore - Paramore
23. Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels
24. Tricot - THE
25. Brandy Clark - 12 Stories
26. James Blake - Overgrown
27. Quadron - Avalanche
28. Sky Ferreira - Night Time, My Time
29. The Internet - Feel Good
30. Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge - Twelve Reasons To Die
31. Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer, Different Park
32. Danny Brown - Old
33. The Knife-Shaking The Habitual
34. CHVRCHES - The Bones Of What You Believe
35. Wild Belle - Isles
36. Anna von Hausswolff - Ceremony
37. Kelela - Cut 4 Me
38. Chelsea Wolfe - Pain Is Beauty
39. Little Tybee - For Distant Viewing
40. Autre Ne Veut - Anxiety
41. Drake - Nothing Was The Same
42. Speedy Ortiz - Major Arcana
43. The So So Glos - Blowout
44. A$AP Ferg - Trap Lord
45. Phoenix - Bankrupt!
46. Thundercat - Apocalypse
47. The-Dream - IV Play
48. AlunaGeorge - Body Music
49. Valerie June - Pushin' Against A Stone
50. Bilal - A Love Surreal

Honorable Mention

Adrian Yonge Presents The Delfonics
Jhene Aiko - Sail Out
Action Bronson & Party Supplies - Blue Chips 2
Alpine - A Is For Alpine
A$AP Rocky - Long.Live.A$AP
Breakbot - By Your Side
V.V. Brown - Samson & Delilah
Aisha Burns - Life In The Midwater
Cakes Da Killa - The Eulogy
The Carrots - New Romance
Chance The Rapper - Acid Rap
Ciara - Ciara
Cocaine 80s - The Flower Of Life
The Computers - Love Triangles Hate Squares
Curren$y - New Jet City
Cuushe - Butterfly Case
Miley Cyrus - Bangerz
Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
Deafheaven - Sunbather
Earl Sweatshirt - Doris
Elements of Life - Eclipse
Eminem - The Marshall Mathers LP 2
Fiend - Lil Ghetto Boy
Kevin Gates - The Luca Brasi Story
Ariana Grande - Yours Truly
Grouper - The Man Who Died In His Boat
Petra Haden - Petra Goes To The Movies
Hiatus Kaiyote - Tawk Tomahawk
Maia Hirasawa - What I Saw
The Julie Ruin - Run Fast
Kilo Kish - K+
Lady - Lady
Lady Gaga - ARTPOP
London Grammar - If You Wait
Lorde - The Love Club EP
Terrace Martin - 3ChordFold
Mazzy Star - Seasons Of Your Day
Migos - YRN
Juana Molina - Wed 21
Kate Nash - Girl Talk
Oddisee - Tangible Dream
Parkington Sisters - Inside My Head
Parquet Courts - Light Up Gold
Pistol Annies - Annie Up
Gregory Porter - Liquid Spirit
Rhye - Woman
Dawn Richard - Goldenheart
Robert Glasper Experiment - Black Radio 2
Ian Rubbish - The Best Of Ian Rubbish
Alice Russell - To Dust
Sango - North
Sleigh Bells - Bitter Rivals
Marnie Stern - The Chronicles Of Marnia
Submotion Orchestra - 1968
Summer Camp - Summer Camp
THEEsatisfaction - and that's your time
Tegan and Sara - Heartthrob
The Underachievers - Indigoism
Vampire Weekend - Vampires In The Modern City
Diana Vickers - Music To Make Boys Cry
Warm Soda - Someone Like You
The Wonder Years - The Greatest Generation
Young Thug - 1017 Thug
Yuna - Nocturnal

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