By: Shaun Spivak
At around this time of year, I like to reflect on which albums have remained in my playlists. I normally find that there are a handful of artists, songs and albums that really define pivotal moments within the year. Music has an incredibly strong power to trigger memories, and when I listen back to albums that I loved many years ago, they take me back not only to a specific time and place, but also a feeling. That being said, this is, of course, a subjective list that I connect strongly with, and hopefully some of you do too.
Note: I couldn’t help but cringe when I realized that this list was completed devoid of any hip-hop. While I feel as though some really incredible hip hop music has come out in the past few years, nothing struck me this year for some reason (sorry Yeezus, close but no cigar. Get rid of Bound 2 and then we’ll see). I am sure some incredible hip-hop records came out this year, so any suggestions anyone has please feel free to share in the comments!
10) James Blake – Overgrown
James Blake could have easily made the same album that he did in 2011, capitalizing on the success of his signature downtempo style, but instead aimed for a more accessible approach. Overgrown is catchier than Blake’s debut, while at the same time staying true to the tonal nuances that made the self-titled such a unique endeavor. While the “wow” factor may not quite be the same on Blake’s sophomore album, I actually preferred the detour into more traditional song composition and use of hooks. With an audience increasingly susceptible to distractions (as all musicians know too well), James Blake offers his distinct array of soundscapes not through spoon-feeding, but rather a selection of comprehensible songs that retain his remarkable polish. This is really one of the first fantastic, comprehensive albums to have come out in 2013.
Standout Tracks: Life Round Here, Retrograde
9) Haim – Days Are Gone
Haim really did a number on 2013. They toured extensively and recorded an incredibly catchy debut album that felt new and refreshing while at the same time paid homage a previous era (see: Fleetwood Mac). Days Are Gone is a captivating, polished pop album, and Haim has no qualms with proclaiming this through their fierce energy, both on the stage and off. Days Are Gone is my choice for the catchiest album of 2013. Have no doubt, 2014 will be a massive year for the band.
Standout Tracks: The Wire, Falling
8) The Dear Hunter – Migrant
To say that Casey Crescenzo, frontman and creator of The Dear Hunter, is a control freak may be an understatement. The man has written and produced everything from a set of Victorian-era based concept albums to The Color Spectrum, a project consisting of a set of color-based EPs. 2013 has been The Dear Hunter’s most commercially successful year, unsurprisingly marked by the release of their most personal and conventional record to-date. There is a secret is Casey’s simplicity, and Migrant unfolds into a collection of intimate stories set against a colorful backdrop of gorgeous strings and intricate guitar riffs. Migrant might not have all of the bells and whistles of The Dear Hunter’s previous albums, but it makes up for it with heart.
Standout Tracks: Whisper, Let Go
7) Phosphorescent – Muchacho
One thing is for damn sure; Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck has a ton of soul. He doesn’t throw it around carelessly on Muchacho, but uses it vigilantly and disparately. From the beautiful string arrangement on Song for Zula to the exhilarating twang of A Charm/A Blade, Houck has created an extremely well constructed album that covers all of its bases without losing any its flair. His crackling, wavering voice may come off as a little much at times, but the dynamics of each song actually mesh well with Houck’s vocal style and makes for a listening experience that feels lively, as if the performance is being captured in its element rather than repeated and perfected in a studio environment. This allows Muchacho to be varied and colorful without ever feeling unauthentic. This album is probably the closest thing to country on this list, if you’re a fan of the genre be sure to check this one out.
Standout Tracks: Song for Zula, The Quotidian Beast
6) Volcano Choir – Repave
Volcano Choir is a band comprised of Bon Iver’s own Justin Vernon alongside members of Wisconsin outfit Collections of Colonies of Bees. Now, being a huge fan of Bon Iver’s latest release, I have to admin that I went into this album a bit…partial. Although Repave comes even closer to sonically engaging Bon Iver than Volcano Choir’s first album, the group firmly establishes their stylistic independence with a collection of engaging tracks with this release. The dynamic between Vernon and the other members of the band is striking, as even with a strong vocalist at helm, Repave is a very instrumental record. Unlike his other projects, Justin Vernon steps aside on this album and lets the excellent instrumentation of the band shine, complimenting the sound with vocal harmonies rather than standing at the front. The album is mixed and produced extremely well, and the diversity of the songs make for a captivating experience throughout.
Standout Tracks: Comrade, Alaskans
5) Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience (Part 1)
Alright all you JT naysayers, it’s time to wake up and realize that this guy has some serious musical chops. Through his first two releases, Timberlake has evolved from an icon yearning to break free from his boyband roots to a full-blown popstar with a wide array of musical influences fueling his work. The 20/20 Experience emphasizes Timberlake’s musical capabilities with various Motown-inspired compositions that feature the man not only confidently tightening his grip on pop expertise, but also stepping out of the norm and into some unconventional songwriting territory. Most of the albums songs clock in at over 7 minutes and have drawn out, instrumentally focused outros that makes the listening experience refreshing. The closing track, Blue Ocean Floor, is also an ambitious ambient piece that, while not quite fitting in with anything that Timberlake has made before, ended up being one of my favorite moments on the album.
Standout Tracks: Pusher Love Girl, Blue Ocean Floor
4) Washed Out – Paracosm
As the name suggests, Paracosm is perhaps the most atmospheric album of 2013. From start to finish, Ernest Greene captures the listener and brings them into a world that he has carefully crafted. What makes Paracosm especially effective is that it truly sounds like a one-of-a-kind album that will not ever be repeated, even by Washed Out. Greene wanted to capture a vibrant ecosystem that lives and breathes in unique ways and successfully accomplished just that. The tracks blend together to give the album a necessary cohesion, careful not to pull the listener away from the experience, each song remains distinctly enjoyable. Accomplishing this balance effectively is an outstanding feat. If only the lyrical content carried the same potency as all of the other elements of Paracosm, it just might have been my favorite album of the year.
Standout Tracks: All I Know, Paracosm
3) Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
Ezra Koenig, lead vocalist for Vampire Weekend, has a way with words. The clever imagery referencing New York City is really what makes Modern Vampires of the City stand out, and is also why it is, lyrically, the most impressive album of the year. Themes of love, loss and religion are carefully scattered across the landscape of the album, which is held together by seemingly unassuming arrangements. As I absorbed this dynamic I realized that this the best album the band has released thus far, and interestingly enough, it is also the least pretentious. Vampire Weekend’s cunning songwriting skills are carefully calculated here, ensuring that nothing is said, or played, just for the sake of the statement. Each one liner has a contextual relation to the music it is being applied to, and this is what makes Modern Vampires of the City such a joy to listen to. The album doesn’t end as strongly as I would have liked, but it makes up for it with a collection of some of the best songs I have heard all year.
Standout Tracks: Step, Ya Hey
2) The National – Trouble Will Find Me
One of the things that makes The National so special is their commitment to sincerity, and Trouble Will Find Me is brimming with it. At first it may appear one-dimension, but this is the album’s greatest illusion. It is not afraid to repeat time signatures, melodies and pacing, because each song stands on its own as a genuine story and opportunity for the band to connect with their audience. It takes time to soak in, but the decisions made on this album work in its favor in a very peculiar way. Instead of magnifying their masterfully technical guitar skills, brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner (who also produced the album) mix down their instruments into layered textures that compliment one another. Rather than expanding into a grand conclusion, the band holds back and subtly brings elements of each song together. And of course, as with their previous efforts, Matt Berninger’s baritone voice fits in perfectly as the centerpiece for the storytelling. Trouble Will Find Me was the album that gripped me the most in 2013.
Standout Tracks: I Should Live In Salt, Hard To Find
1) Arcade Fire – Reflektor
The top 3 albums on this list are essentially interchangeable to me. They all have fundamental characteristics that make up a great record, and should all be recognize as, collectively, the best albums of the year. The reason Reflektor is #1 on this list is not because it is an altogether better album than Trouble Will Find Me and Modern Vampires of the City, but because it is thematically the definitive record of 2013. The album is composed of a commentary that asks us fundamental questions, such as “what connects us” and “what do we reflect on”? The opening track sets this premise up perfectly, and from there themes of human relationships and the interference that affects them, often from technology, continue to resonate throughout the album. Reflektor is Arcade Fire’s modern myth, told with eerily striking relevance to the world we live in today.
Like The National and Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire have consistently put out quality material that has defined their successful careers. After listening to the first minute of Reflektor, however, it becomes apparent that the band has taken a musical detour. This can largely be credited to producer James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem fame, who coproduced Reflektor. The album is more beat driven and “dancey” than any of its predecessors. This can also be attributed to the band’s time spent in Haiti, and this influence is really what makes the album shine. This is Arcade Fire’s most percussive album to date, and also their most enthusiastic and upbeat. Sonically, Reflektor is a breath of fresh air. The album is chock-full of voiceovers and background noises that give it life rather than distract. I have never heard anything quite like it, as sometimes it really does sound like someone with a microphone just walked into a room where the band was playing. They always manage to keep this open style of production engaging, as the consistency and quality of the hooks created by this band never cease to amaze. Those who dismiss Arcade Fire (or Vampire Weekend and National, for that matter) by labeling and compartmentalizing them before consuming their music at face value are really only doing a disservice to themselves. Reflektor is bold, and it deserves a thorough listen in order to discover the many gems for which I know I will to continue to search for years to come.
Other Great Albums of 2013:
Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe
Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
Daughter – If You Leave
Kanye West – Yeezus
Local Natives – Hummingbird
Sigur Ros – Kveikur
Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories)
Songs of the Year:
Arcade Fire – Here Comes the Nighttime (From Reflektor)
Phosphorescent – Song for Zula (From Muchacho)
Vampire Weekend – Ya Hey (From Modern Vampires of the City)
Blood Orange – You’re Not Good Enough (From Cupid Deluxe)
Live Band of the Year – Sigur Ros