Best Music of 2013

When I look back at my 2012 list, and how great that year in music was, it’s probably not surprising that 2013 seemed to be a year of disappointments. That’s not to say it was a year of bad music. But while making this list, I found myself remembering music I really liked and looking it up only to find out it was from 2012. Or even worse, scrolling down a list of music releases and coming across records I completely forgot about. That phenomenon is the main reason I say it was a year of disappointments, because those records I had completely forgotten about, in many cases, were from artists that I really like, if not love. Kanye, Fuck Buttons, Daft Punk, Nick Cave, Boards of Canada, Mount Kimbie, James Blake, My Bloody Valentine for god’s sake, and on and on. They weren’t bad records, exactly. I just sort of forgot about them. They never dug in. (Okay, some of them were bad records)

The upside is that, all those records were bumped out of my listening attention by a lot of totally out of the blue stuff, which may say something about my tastes shuffling about, or about the ongoing splintering of musical genre and variety. In any event, only 4 of my the 15 favorite records of 2013 were by musicians I had ever listened to before this year. That’s pretty cool. And before I completely write off my standby favorite artists, there were a few that delivered well beyond my wildest hopes.

15. Arcade Fire - Reflektor

I’m going to be honest. This is kind of a sympathy pick. I think this record is better than most people this year said it was. It is clunky, unwieldy, incoherent as a solid piece, and just weird at times. But Arcade Fire had the unfair disadvantage of having to follow up on a masterpiece. And if you didn’t know it was Grammy-winning THE Arcade Fire, you’d find yourself listening to a fun, fascinating, quirky and adventurous arty dance rock record.

Song: Reflektor

14. Churches - The Bones of What You Believe

I came across this one quite late in the year, but it’s one of those pop rock records that are really hard to put down. And while I’m generally not on board the Haim-style 1980s overproduced gloss, this is just so catchy and hyperactive, a shimmery dose of joy with murky black lyrics.

Song: We Sink

13. Huerco S. - Colonial Patterns

I listen to and enjoy quite a lot of electronic music, but for something to really stick it has to show a vision and sense of experimentation that in my opinion, can set the genre, at its best, in a separate class from just about any other. The reason I love electronic music, is that its best practitioners are doing things, making sounds, and attacking my brain in completely unique ways. Even the best folk, rock, rap, pop whatever musicians would have a hard time saying that about what they make. Huerco S. is one of those artists working well out of the box, and for that I love this record.

Song: ‘linzhiid

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12. Phosphorescent - Muchacho

Song for Zula is enough to get this record into my best of list, but it’s a lot more than that. Phosphorescent’s earlier music, while interesting enough alt country, didn’t quite grab me like the warm and off-kilter production on Muchacho did. Although his Willie Nelson covers album is pretty cool. And while Songs for Zula got the most attention, songs like The Quotidian Beasts and Terror in the Canyons have emotional lyrics paired with vulnerable vocals that remind me of that first Bon Iver record.

Song: The Quotidian Beasts

11. Pantha Du Prince & Bell Laboratory - Elements of Light

I’ve really liked just about all of German producer Hendrik Weber’s music, but Elements of Light took his interest in chimes, bells and Steve Reich-style minimal composition to its full progression. I ultimately hope he goes back to his dark ambient style of production, but for one album at least, it was about as catchy and melodic as this kind of music gets. You start listening, and it builds and picks up momentum and then it’s over and you want to go back and start over.

Song: Spectral Split

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10. Waxahatchee - Cerulean Salt

There’s a lot of 90s going around lately, and I’m a 90s kind of guy so that’s okay by me. Waxahatchee has the fuzzy lo-fi guitars that kind of remind me of Smashing Pumpkins (reminding me of how great that Japandroids record was last year). But the vocals are the star of the show, intimate like Sharon Van Etten, but there’s something raw and rocking about the sound that reminds me of Liz Phair or even Corrine Tucker.

Song: Misery Over Dispute

9. Shigeto - No Better Time Than Now

This is more traditional electronic music than something like Pantha du Prince or Huerco S., but no less exciting. I had to add Shigeto because, looking back at my scrobbling history, I played the shit out of this record. And giving it a more recent listen, it’s understandable why. For me, the future of electronic music (and non-electronic too, I guess) is a sound that you would hesitate to call electronic. Taking the sensibility of electronic dance music, but using a palette that reaches much further than your typical trance bass and shimmer. Along those lines, Shigeto has a tremendous organic and diverse sound.

Song: No Better Time Than Now

8. Restorations - LP2

Speaking of Japandroids, this band out Japandroids the Japandroids. Or maybe they out Titus Andronicus Titus Andronicus. Anyway, this group is, I’m fairly certain, not on anyone else’s Best Of list this year, and that’s a damn shame. My friend and rock critic Eric Swedlund randomly suggested them to me, knowing that I’m a big fan of this greasy blue-collar brand of Springsteen punk. Their last album was good, but this one is great. It would be a tragedy if this band didn’t start getting more traction than they have.

Song: Civil Inattention

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7. Juana Molina - Wed 21

I read an amazing interview with Juana Molina where I was surprised to find out that she’s a popular actress in Argentina. Surprised because Wed 21 is in part so masterfully produced you would never guess its creator ever did anything but make meticulous music. On headphones, Wed 21 is completely enveloping. I suppose that makes sense, considering its Molina’s sixth album, but it has an incredible attentiveness to the poetry of sound.

Song: Sin Guia, No

6. Forest Swords

Another late addition, I just learned about this when reading Boomkat’s top picks for the year. But Forest Swords has been in heavy rotation, this one and earlier releases. I originally had Tim Hecker or DJ Koze bucking for a slot on this list, but Forest Swords bumped those guys (who I LOVE) right out the picture. The reason is that every track on this record is so unique, mixing drone, rock, ambient all layered with a weird kind of Nordic tribal spookiness, if that’s a thing.

Song: Thor’s Stone

5. Burial - Rival Dealer

This isn’t even an album, but in just three songs it immediately became one of my favorite releases of the year. If mysterious producer Burial ever actually put out albums, it would probably immediately jump to number one. But part of the fun of this artist is listening how every new 3 or 4 songs released have evolved from the last. This round, the songs keep their signature layer of grime, like the sound of rusty metal gears reluctantly clacking away. But there’s a level of optimism and anthem we’ve not seen in Burial’s music. Sampling Lana Wachowski’s moving speech at the HRC gala about being transgender, it’s a powerful emotional statement that has exposed Burial a bit, pulling back the curtain on the person behind the genre-driving productions.

Song: Come Down to Us

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4. Lorde - Pure Heroine

I’m never more hopeful for the future of humanity than when a pop artist aligns the greater majority of the scrutinizing population behind his or her work. Lorde, the 17-year-old from New Zealand (she was born the year I graduated f’ing high school) really did that this year. I was like, oh why does everyone like this Lorde person, and then I listened to the record and never turned back. While the pop music scene is going the direction of dub step and neo-folk, Lorde’s production is more like witch house, of all things. But it’s not just the gothic electronic sound, it’s the honest and angsty teen lyrics and smoky vocals and amazing hooks.

Song: Royals, duh

3. Darkside - Psychic

It might be more accurate to say one of my favorites of the year was anything and everything that Nicolas Jaar did. Any of the random mixes or DJ sets he’s done, his impressive collection of EPs. And his project with Dave Harrington “Darkside” even managed to scrape the velvety goop off of Daft Punk’s immensely overrated nostalgia party, dialing down to the beats of Random Access Memories to make it quite listenable. But when Psychic came out, it was immediately my favorite electronic music release of the year. Jaar has an Ennio Morricone sound in much of his music, and Psychic definitely has that. It blew away even the solid releases by alternative electronic acts like Oneohtrix Point Never and Boards.

Song: Golden Arrow

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2. Neko Case - The Worse Things Get the Harder I Fight…

It’s hard to overstate my appreciation of Neko Case’s music, much less her intensely likable persona. Neko Case has gone from a punk drummer, to an alt country retro torch singer, to a power pop crooner, to her current role as one of the greatest singer-songwriters in the game. But to call her a singer-songwriter is really a vast understatement. Her talents as singer, producer, band leader, rock front woman all threaten to overshadow her powerful songwriting, which seems to get better with every record. People are going to look back at her the way we look back at Harry Nillson and Joni Mitchell.

Song: Man

1. The National - Trouble Will Find Me

Rising above the disappointments, my top two records of the year were by two of my all time favorite artists, and their 2013 releases actually exceeded expectations. But especially The National’s Trouble Will Find Me. Boxer is and likely always will be one of my favorite records, and honestly, I sort of would have been okay if they never came out with something as good. It might have been a warm, layered fluke of a masterpiece from a pretty standard rock/Americana band. I definitely liked High Violet, but it felt a bit claustrophobic and careful. But Trouble Will Find Me is as good, if not better than Boxer. It has all the hooks, the cutting lyrics, the baroque instrumentation. It’s an easy criticism of The National to say they make middle-aged-white-guy music, and my love of them certainly doesn’t counter that criticism. I’m their target audience, and the voice, tone and subject matter is right in my wheelhouse. The other criticism of the record is that it’s too monochromatic and mopey.

But these criticisms of Trouble Will Find Me overlook two important traits. First, Matt Berninger’s lyrics are as literary, insightful and more than anything, funny, than they are mopey. Second, the drums. This band is an ensemble of extremely talented musicians, and while most identifiable is Berninger’s baritone singing, it’s Bryan Devendorf’s drumming that makes the band stand way out from its peers. It’s almost like the vocals and guitar provide the atmospherics and the drums are the hooks. A funny, dark, contemplative record in which each machine-gun beat is perfectly in place.

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