Like most of those who write about music, I spent the better part of 2013 locked in a soundproof cryogenic chamber, feverishly consuming, one-by-one, the 75,000 or so albums released throughout the calendar year. It's good to be outside!
With that in mind, ours is a deeply empirical and laboriously considered list. So here they are—the ten best albums from a year that held no shortage of great and very good albums. Enjoy.
10. Oneohtrix Point Never — R Plus Seven
At what point in mid-2012 did Steve Reich and Philip Glass decide to break into Daniel Lopatin's apartment, steal his LP-in-progress, and infuse the whole thing with a minimalist composer's sense of color, climax, and fluttering activity? R Plus Seven hardly sounds like the work of the same experimental electronic guru who pieced together the downbeat, often feverishly glitchy Replica in 2011. Thing is, it might be even better, and it's almost certainly the first OPN release you could reasonably listen to during daylight hours without feeling like some sickly, hipster vampire. Its closing track, "Chrome Country," seals the deal with the most inviting synth melody Lopatin has constructed to date, and a swelling organ coda so sweet you kind of want to curl inside it for a few hours and nap.
9. Orkinpod — The Loudest Sound
Taking "bedroom pop" to the purest and most literal extreme, Orkinpod's BJ Lillis recorded the trembling, intimate The Loudest Sound at his Sleepy Hollow, NY home, his chief collaborators seemingly being the off-kilter instrumentation that fill these songs: "pots, pans, glasses; packing-tape drums; jar-of-pennies; laundry basket; maracas and shakers; backgammon pieces." That cast of non-sentient musical characters informs the gnawing solitude of Orkinpod's songs ("Loneliness is just a ten-letter word," he repeats on "Just a Ten Letter Word," fooling no one and certainly not himself), but it's also key to the album's immensely colorful folk-pop arrangements. Fittingly, it takes just a few tracks to realize how much Lillis worships the Beach Boys at their Smiley Smile weirdest; Brian Wilson, too, loved his bedroom, even if he's forced to compete with Demi Lovato for Orkinpod's adoring song dedications.
8. Eleanor Friedberger — Personal Record
When you're Eleanor Friedberger—once-proprietess of Fiery Furnaces, crafter of songs as willfully obtuse as, say, "Chief Inspector Blancheflower"—a single three- or four-minute love song takes on revolutionary qualities. So, Personal Records bequeathes from a bedroom somewhere in Brooklyn, here are 12 of them, filtered through the vocabulary of '70s singer-songwriter pop and manifested as platonic friendship swoons ("When I Knew"), embittered goodbyes ("Singing Time"), and the quiet jealousy of an open relationship ("Other Boys"). If Fiery Furnaces are Never Ever Getting Back Together, maybe that's okay, too.
7. The Men — New Moon
It's almost like the Onion article ideal for a Brooklyn act: Area Indie Band Decamps to Upstate Cabin, Builds Campfires, Records What Might As Well Be a Crazy Horse Tribute Record. Which means, well, sure, it's rootsy. Enough smirking—it's also The Men's most enduring collection of songs to date, soaked in enough country grime ("High and Lonesome"), scowling overdrive ("Half Angel Half Light"), and screeching guitar heroics ("I Saw Her Face") to duck the dreaded dad-rock sheen altogether.
6. Chance the Rapper — Acid Rap
"Everybody's somebody's everything," a 19-year-old Chancelor Bennett recites on the slow-shuffling "Everybody's Something." He means it! (We think.) In a hip hop year dominated by Kanye's anti-pop beast (hint: look ahead), Jay Z's empty-plated boasts, and Danny Brown's helium-voiced hysterics, Acid Rap is a technicolor adrenaline shot of positivity, an eclectic set that threads wires between old-school rap's youthful golden age (you know, before Bennett was born) and 2013 mixtape culture. And its charm, its sheer infectious melodicism, is such that it's become at least something to everybody—even the Biebs.
5. King Krule — 6 Feet Beneath the Moon
2013's most oddly stirring debut? Here, look, it's this: the delightfully awkward, homespun confessional pop of a British Ronald Weasley lookalike with a voice apparently lifted from a chimney sweep in 1950s London. It's a stylistic jumble so odd Spin called it "Steely Dan gone dubstep"; indeed, there's jazz guitar and dubby drum loops and whirring reverb and Krule's strange, warbly delivery slyly anchoring it all, but it's the artist's strangely tilted if still intuitive melodic sense that makes it work. Coarse voice aside, King Krule (or Archy Marshall) is too young for some of the cultural references at your disposal anyway. He dropped 6 Feet Beneath the Moon on his 19th birthday, and it's got a youthful sense of enthusiasm and loneliness to prove it.
4. The Arcade Fire — Reflektor
For just five minutes, let's all quit arguing about the street graffiti and dress codes and secret shows and Satan knows what else and focus on the album. It's all marketing (which, by definition, is filthy and terrible), its hysterical clamor fueled by the very "Reflektive Age" Reflektor places under a microscope. And at the heart of that clamor is a very good, very big, and very rich pop record—one of those Bold Steps Forward that's in part humbling by virtue of how easily the act in question could've rested on its laurels, playing it safe forever after, handing us another breezy Suburbs clone after another to ample critical and commercial reward. Which is to say: this album, a James Murphy-helmed, disco-paranoia double LP, is not that, and we're all better off for it. (Except those scrounging for "formal attire.")
3. Savages — Silence Yourself
Silence yourself, or don't—Savages' scorching debut makes its presence known (literally, in the case of "I Am Here") with enough force to do it for you. A noisy, biting set of post-punk fury driven by Jehnny Beth's enduring howls, this is one of those debuts—the sort that barrels out of the gate with enough visceral abandon to steal your attention away from your favorite band's new record and onto a once-unknown London quartet that played its first show in 2012, for god's sake. Debuts this good should be illegal, really.
2. Kanye West — Yeezus
Here's what I still want to know: what was the scene like when Kanye and Rick Rubin finally, frantically finished Yeezus with moments to spare? Did they high-five, bro-hug, even grasp the lightning bolt they'd just whittled down? Or did Kanye remain calm, put his headphones back on, and bask in that part in "Blood on the Leaves"— yes, that one—grinning? Did he even imagine the TV spots, the Jesus cameos, the racial tensions these tracks would soundtrack?
That's the paradox of Yeezus: you can't disassociate the album's 10 tracks from the myriad pop cultural associations spread across 2013—the SNL moments, the commercials that snatched up the "Black Skinhead" intro, the willfully ludicrous "New Slaves" projections—but you can't hear Yeezus as anything but the tightly wound and brilliantly self-contained opus it is, one that's set in stark, brutal contrast to every Kanye album before it and maybe after, too. Yeezus season can't last forever.
1. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds — Push the Sky Away
Nick Cave's last twenty-something months in review: he shaved his creeper mustache, dissolved (and later resurrected) Grinderman, spent months writing songs inspired by "Googling curiosities [and] being entranced by exotic Wikipedia entries," holed himself up at a French recording studio modeled after a 19th-century mansion to record said songs, and—before spending many more months on tour—emerged with his strangest and best album since The Boatman's Call.
Push the Sky Away is a triumph that floats entirely outside the Grinderman-rocker/piano-balladeer dichotomy of Cave's recent work in favor of minimalist mood-rock. It's cautious and quiet in tone, but tenser and sharper than anything this side of Murder Ballads. What gives the record its eerie and singular weight is how Cave negotiates his longtime guitarist Mick Harvey's absence—by bringing Warren Ellis's violin and "tiny, trembling" loops to the foreground—and how deftly the artist incorporates Internet themes into his solidly morbid lyrical obsessions. On the rumbling, slow-revealing "We Real Cool," that's a relieved admission that "Wikipedia is heaven / When you don't want to remember anymore"; on the deliriously epic "Higgs Boson Blues," it's a hallucinatory and near-prophetic tangle with Hannah Montana doing "the African Savannah." Elsewhere, the artist pens a swelling, slow-revealing tribute to a dead prostitute ("Jubilee Street"), twists a chilling meta-fantasy around his own songwriting process ("Finishing Jubilee Street"), and offers up some of his most quietly menacing and sonically adventurous songs to date ("Water's Edge," "Push the Sky Away"). In a year bloated beyond reason with the thick, mucky residue of viral Internet phenomena, Cave's take is as timely and brilliant as it is unflinchingly bizarre.
It's, of course, always heartbreaking to rank one's children in a top 10 list, especially when one has way more than 10 children. (To be clear, I have no children.) So: had I room to list another four records in this exalted space, here are the four records I would have listed, as of Monday morning: The Flaming Lips' The Terror, My Bloody Valentine's mbv, Polvo's Siberia, and Waxahatchee's Cerulean Salt. How it hurts to abandon them all!
Frankly, I don't pay too much attention to reissues—box sets are expensive and tedious and trying, and reissues that soil an album's flow with needless bonus material are among the world's foremost atrocities. Still, it brought me pain not to be able to include Port St. Willow's Holiday, the debut collection of sweeping, gorgeously expansive post-rock from Brooklyn singer Nick Principe. Technically it was self-released in 2012. It was reissued (with, okay, a lengthy bonus cut) this past year. It is very, very good.
Best Comeback Effort
Oh, I don't know, here are some good ones.