This year was so fertile for new music that, for the first time, I felt like I heard enough records I liked to put together a ranking of my favorite albums of the year. The expansion of Spotify’s catalog didn’t hurt, as now I didn’t have to own every album (or pirate them, which I won’t do) to review them, and I’ve received a few of these via publicists or record labels, including the albums at 4, 5, and 6.
This list represents my personal preferences. The omission of some critically-acclaimed albums, like those from the National, Vampire Tweekend, Daft Punk, and Haim, is deliberate. I don’t like ‘em, ergo, they’re not here. The same goes for Mercury Prize winner James Blake, who wasn’t even the best solo male artist nominated for the award this year. If you’re looking for alt-J’s An Awesome Wave, that was my favorite album of 2012, as it was released in the U.S. last September.
I’ll post my top 100 songs of the year on Thursday, and mention in each review how many tracks from that album will appear on that list.
13. Teeth of the Sea – Master. (amazon • iTunes)Part of me isn’t even sure why I’m putting a record I don’t even fully understand on this list; like Field of Reeds from These New Puritans, Master is aiming for something well beyond the scope of what I enjoy and appreciate in modern music. While plenty of electronic acts earned airplay and mainstream plaudits in 2013, I don’t think anyone produced anything as ambitious within that subgenre as Teeth of the Sea did here, creating a dark, immersive record that at times seemed to draw more inspiration from symphonic death metal (like a vocal-free Hollenthon) than it did from the heart of current electronica. The record placed one song on my top 100, but that’s in part of a function of the album working better as a whole than in singles.
12. Frank Turner – Tape Deck Heart. (amazon • iTunes)Turner’s brand of punk-folk, or whatever it is, is incredibly endearing mostly because he seems to cram more lyrics into each minute than Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell spat out in His Girl Friday. It’s the kind of album that should be enjoyed along with two fingers of your favorite distilled spirit, or a pint of a good, not-too-cold Irish or English beer, even though the album’s best song is about the difficulty of drying oneself out. Turner hides nothing, and his writing skills lie in his ability to translate sadness and hurt into darkly humorous lyrics. The album placed one song on my top 100.
11. Wooden Shjips – Back to Land. (amazon • iTunes)Can I just pronounce this “Wooden Shyips?” Because that’s what I want to do every time I see their name. Like Teeth of the Sea, Wooden Shjips are better consumed as a whole disc than as individual singles, here because everything is good and nothing stands out in a huge way from the album’s mean. They get the “psychedelic” tag a lot, although I think some of that is just because they use a Hammond organ, but it’s guitar-driven rock with extended song structures and maybe a little too much reverb in the vocals. It might be more fair to think of them as a jam band that keeps things tight on record. It didn’t place any songs on my top 100, with “Ruins” my favorite track because it sounds like a party’s about to break out in the studio.
10. Carcass – Surgical Steel. (amazon • iTunes) I actually don’t listen to much metal, let alone extreme metal variations, with the exception of melodic death metal – very fast, heavy music with lyrics that are often screamed rather than sung, but with tremendous technical musicianship and actual melodies that require a little work to find but that provide balance for music that can be brutal and intense. Carcass was probably the progenitor of the subgenre but hadn’t released any new material since 1996’s disappointing Swansong, but their comeback album this year, Surgical Steel, is a true return to form but with a newer maturity, including tighter song structures and lots of allusions to their heyday as grindcore pioneers. Other metal albums I liked from 2013: Children of Bodom’s Halo of Blood, Trivium’s Vengeance Falls, Born of Osiris’ Tomorrow We Die Δlive, and Týr’s Valkyrja.
9. Naked and Famous – In Rolling Waves. (amazon • iTunes) The sophomore album from this New Zealand act is more lush than their debut, giving lead signer Alisa Xayalith more room to sing rather than shouting vocals over louder, heavier music as she had to do on their first two hits, “Young Blood” and “Punching in a Dream.” It’s a more serious album, with slower builds and more modest payoffs, weaving textures rather than building off giant hooks – if anything, the catchier tracks are among the album’s weaker ones, except for lead single “Hearts Like Ours” and the duet “The Mess.” I don’t award points for a band making progress per se, but the result here of the band maturing from a shorter singles-oriented sound to a more ambitious overall sound made it among the year’s best discs. The album placed one song on my top 100.
8. Arcade Fire – Reflektor. (iTunes • iTunes) I’ve had multiple readers ask me if I’ve changed my mind on this album since giving it a middling review about a week after its release, which I find strange mostly because … well, is it that important that I like the album? I don’t pretend my opinion means anything beyond giving you guys something to read and talk about, so I don’t think the fact that I found this album disappointing is such a big deal. I loved The Suburbs, but Reflektor went so far in the opposite direction – bloated song times, pretentious lyrics, too few musical ideas – that I couldn’t help but feel let down. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, himself known for songs about twice as long as they needed to be, produced the album, and he was probably the wrong choice for a band that can’t rein itself in. This was a good album relative to other releases this year, but it could have been so much better. The album placed three tracks on my top 100.
7. Jake Bugg – Shangri La. (amazon • iTunes) I whiffed on Bugg’s self-titled debut album for last year’s list; the album came out last October and I didn’t hear anything of it until well into 2013. I’ve caught up now, as Bugg’s second album came out in November and features more of the same Dylanesque sound, but better, including the punkish “What Doesn’t Kill You?,” the rockabilly opener “There’s a Beast and We All Feed It,” and the shuffling ballad “Me and You,” itself a late cut from my top 100. Bugg is just 19 and has only begun to scratch the surface of what could be an enormous career as Dylan’s spiritual heir. The album placed one track on my top 100.
6. Polvo – Siberia. (amazon • iTunes)The second post-breakup (and post-reunion) album from these 1990s noise-rock cult heroes might be their best effort yet, packing plenty of weirdness into its eight tracks but never losing the plot. It’s heavy on twin guitars, even though they often sound like they might not be playing the same song, and the lyrics are trippy if you like them and nonsense if you don’t. I particularly like how the album feels heavy without being loud or extreme, an example of where modern metal often goes wrong; you don’t need to sing like Cookie Monster to create the impression of weight. The album placed two tracks on my top 100.
5. St. Lucia – When the Night. (amazon • iTunes) One of the best debut albums of the year and one of its best pure-pop records, When the Night is the first effort from the South African-born New York native Jean-Philip Grobler, who has remixed many better-known artists and produced the debut album from HAERTS. St. Lucia’s sound is sweet synth-pop with global influences in the rhythm and percussion sections, along with a detour into darker electronic sounds on one of the album’s best tracks, “September.” Grobler occasionally veers too far into twee territory but the album has more than enough moments of balance, placing three tracks on my top 100.
4. Drenge – Drenge. The self-titled debut from these two English brothers actually isn’t out yet in the U.S., which is one of the stupidest policies left in the digital age. Why would any movie, record, or book publisher stagger release dates internationally? Ones and zeroes know nothing of your national borders. If you don’t want to encourage piracy, release everything on the same day across the world. Drenge’s album is on Spotify and I received a promo copy in November, so you can listen to it before its early 2014 release here, and it’s well worth it, with a slew of high-energy guitar/drum songs that show influences from each of the last four decades, going back to early Black Sabbath and running up through the White Stripes. The record placed three tracks on my top 100.
3. Savages – Silence Yourself. (amazon • iTunes) This was my album of the year until September, when the two albums higher on this list both came out, and still wins the prize of the year’s angriest album. The all-female quartet known as Savages have produced a short eleven-track masterpiece of seething and indignation, led by French singer Jehnny Beth’s punctuated style that has her practically spitting the words at the undeserving audience. The music is post-punk in its original sense – Suicide, Television, Gang of Four – not pop, even though songs like “She Will,” “Shut Up,” and “Strife” boast strong hooks. The album placed two tracks on my top 100.
2. CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe. (amazon • iTunes) The debut of the year was a little uneven in spots but so exultant during most of its length that it feels captious to point out its flaws. Singer Lauren Mayberry is an emerging star, one whose future probably goes beyond the electro-pop confines of this record and perhaps the band in general, but for now the Scottish trio has crafted the year’s best pop record, with five tracks on my top 100 and one that was in the set that just missed.
1. Arctic Monkeys – AM. (amazon • iTunes)Their best album since their debut, but with all that several years of maturity and musical meandering incorporated into a disc that brings an enormous range of influences to produce the year’s most compelling and most complete experience. Turner has long been one of rock’s most clever wordsmiths, but took his form of snarky-witty modern beat poetry to new heights on AM. The album placed five songs on my top 100 and could have placed two more, plus one track, “R U Mine?” that appeared on the 2012 list because it was released as a one-off single.