The Best Albums of 2013

December 7, 2013

It’s that time of year again–everyone’s rolling out their “Best of 2013” lists, and once again I’ll throw my two cents in. This post is my overall 10 best albums of 2013 list; over the next month I’ll follow it up with my genre-specific “Best Metal Albums” and “Best Hip Hop/R&B” lists as well as “Top 25 Songs,” and “10 Best Films of 2013.” For readers that visit my site and could care less about pop culture,  I plan to begin a new series of posts on “Evolutionary Theology” beginning in January. So here goes!


10) Mazzy Star – Seasons of Your Day

This was my favorite relaxing listen of the year. Occupying the same space as Beach House did last year, Mazzy Star’s latest is the perfect mental soother that theirs  was last year; which is fitting since Mazzy presaged the whole chillwave scene by about ten years. They also do it better than most contemporaries in the field. “Common Burn” and “Lay Myself Down” were previously released as singles in a prior year, but this is the first full-length record from the group in quite some time and those excellent tracks fit perfectly within this overall work.  “In the Kingdom” and “California” couple with those tunes to make this some of the smoothest, most seductive melodic work made by anyone in any genre this year. Hope Sandoval’s vocals still sound amazing and effortless; Roback’s instrumental framework accentuates every subtle melody and finds a nice middle ground between folk and jazz by way of alternative rock.


9) Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience (Part I)

Let’s just forget about part II so as not to guilt the springtime released first half of JT’s pop opus by association. While part II is buoyed by more traditional Timbaland beats more akin to his “Shock Value” albums, part I is an excellent record because Timbaland deviates way into left field for some of the most eccentric, artsy pop music while managing to still plant a flag in the mainstream radio world. Timberlake has been a confident signer and song-maker for years but this unexpected delivery of adult pop (in the best sense of the label) showcases his talent better than anything he’s ever done. His partnership with his producer here is simply perfect and results in long, shifting pop and R&B forays like “Pusher Love Girl” and “Strawberry Bubblegum” as well as lite-funk rock numbers like “That Girl,” bangers like “Tunnel Vision,” the world beat classic “Let the Groove Get In,” the terrific Jay-Z team-up “Suit and Tie,” and the closing  emo-soul indie pop meditation “Blue Ocean Floor.” While most songs here are lengthy, they never tire and this feels like the type of pop record Prince or Stevie Wonder would make in their prime if their prime was right now.


8) Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Vampire Weekend are the quintessential college (or grad-school) indie rockers. Their work seems tailor made for critical praise which likely puts many off and causes them to avoid the work for fear of pretension. Yet with all of their work, and with this their latest more than ever, Vampire Weekend are undeserving of such avoidance because their music neither bows to any current scene nor aggressively avoids them. They simply make the type of music they seem to want to make; they’re wordy but the songs don’t trip over those words; they’re experimental without being un-listenable; and they know how to make a catchy hook (“Diane Young” for one prime example here). They speak to the fears, hopes, compulsions, and  daily affairs of a generation of young adults unsure of how to really be adults. “Obvious Bicycle” is one of the best album openers since “Tonight Tonight” and “Unbelievers” is so catchy it should have placed in top 40 radio. This is their strongest and most varied album to date, and though it falls of just a bit in it’s final leg, it’s still one of the strongest albums released all year.


7) Dawes – Stories Don’t End

Dawes do best what a half-dozen or so other bands do more commercially successful than them. For all the heartfelt roots-rockers playing to millions, Dawes craft better songs and play better music than any of those others. They can detour into hokey and overly-earnest, but never to the detriment of the music. “From a Window Seat,” “Just Beneath the Surface,” and the title track are the best songs they’ve released so far, and their CSNY vibe is a more than welcome addition to modern pop music.


6) The National – Trouble Will Find Me

The National has been around for quite awhile now. I first fell in love with their music with The Boxer,  and as everything they’ve released since has followed that same basic path I’ve found each outing with them rewarding. Trouble Will Find Me is a showcase for story, catharsis and emotion. As always the (often vague or open to interpretation) lyrics are the centerpiece and the music builds up, swirls around, and accents Matt Berringer’s baritone vocals.”Sea of Love” rocks harder than most National tracks and was one of my most played tracks of the year according to my i-tunes counter. “I Need My Girl” is the sweetest ballad Berringer has ever put on record and “Don’t Swallow the Cap” easily stands up with anything on Boxer (or anything else for that matter).


5) Skeletonwitch – Serpents Unleashed

This is the highest an extreme metal record has ever ranked on one of my top-ten comprehensive album lists. This likely has a lot to do with the sheer amount of metal I’ve listened to this year (which made picking my top 10 metal records a bit harder this year), but also with the compact excellence of both Skeletonwitch as a band and their latest album in particular. This is just 30 some odd minutes of the best blend of extreme metal sub-genres imaginable–a little bit of thrash, black, death, and a few hints of pure rock and roll all blended together in a tightly played, entertainingly howled little gem. The more I listen to this band the more I love them for being a fun, full-throttle homage to all that they (and most metalheads) love about metal music and culture. Skeletonwitch, for all hints given thus far in interviews and appearances, appear to be average, fun-loving American guys who transform into musical demons on stage (and on record) to deliver tongue-in-cheek (but not self-satirical) apocalyptic horror stories that pummel full-throttle with riffs galore. None of their albums deviate much from their tried and true formula, and though they switch producers for each outing they’ve been accused of making the same record over and over–I would disagree. I think they’ve found their right sound now, tweaking it just enough to let their work do what it does best. Their last record was the cementing of that sound with the right production and this one pushes that even further to result in the best album they have yet made. The songs this time around are the best songs they’ve ever had, and though they blend together over the course of the album they are still distinctive enough to stand alone and be memorable. “Beneath Dead Leaves” is but one of several stand-outs but perhaps best displays the seamless shift and blend of metal categories the Witch is capable of traversing in a brief 3 minutes.


4) Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks

Trent Reznor returns to making music as NIN and makes one of the best records he’s made under any name in years. “Hesitation Marks” owes more to his earliest work–“Pretty Hate Machine”–than the full-on metal which made him famous (“Downward Spiral,” “Broken”) and also incorporates the styles he’s crafted in his post-NIN work scoring films and in his How to Destroy Angels band, yet it still feels fittingly like NIN. It’s death-disco (as some of his work has been labelled in the past) for the NSA age (“Satellite”). This is creative work that captures an artists who has finally tackled his depression and become sober and as such it’s allowed to be a bit upbeat without being shallowly optimistic (“Everything”). Heavy on the synthesizers and retreading some of his favorite lyrical tropes, it feels refreshing anyway. “Came Back Haunted” is like a teethed version of one of Reznor’s Ghosts while “All Time Low” is R&B techno metal complete with falsetto vocals. It’s good to have new records and a no-holds barred tour from one of the best in the business.


3) Neko Case – The Worse Things Get The Harder I Fight The Harder I Fight The More I Love You

Neko can’t really be called an alt-country singer anymore; her drift to full left field began with Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and continues even here. She finds melodies, lyrics, and song  structures in unusual places yet somehow always makes them work. She also still possesses possibly the best vocals in all of modern popular music. “Man” is one of the best singles of the year and if she chooses to follow it with “Local Girl” she might have another one next year. She’s used great, great hooks sparingly on some tracks in the past (“That Teenage Feeling”) but here she layers them up and repeats them warmly and rewarding (“Night Still Comes,” etc.) Neko revisits “Magpie to the Morning” as the album draws to a close, and by that point she seems to know her audience is one that’s in for the long haul.


2) Arcade Fire – Reflektor

I don’t love Reflketor in the same way or to quite the degree of which I did their last outing (and my number 1 pick that year) The Suburbs, but I am glad they didn’t rehash that same style here. This is a different outing for them and it is a successful one. This is Arcade Fire doing an early era Talking Heads’ record by way of Bowie (who even guests on the opening title track). As is always the case with Arcade Fire, Reflektor is an album-lovers album, with consistency, inter-connectedness and themes galore. I will admit the narrative flow of previous Arcade albums has been easier to follow; this time I certainly get the “we are all together alone” coldness of modern technology and culture vibe present throughout the songs here much more than I follow the mythology and epic story alluded to in the cover of the album that is allegedly a major story going on over the course of the album as well. But beyond that, all that really matters in an album placing so high here is songs, right? And of those, there are plenty of gems. The techno-bumpy postmodern dance groove of the opening title track, the jammy T-Heads thump of “We Exist,” the full on rocker “Normal Person,” the wonderful buoyed by a fantastic bass riff number “Joan of Arc” (which may contain my favorite lyrics of the whole album), the Pink Floydish “Awful Sound”…these are all great songs which makes it hard to focus on any single one in brief recap here. There is no filler here and I really love this record; I love the boundaries it pushes against and the way it channels its inspirations into wholly unique work of its own. I love that it aims big and delivers unfailingly as entertainment even when the ambtions aren’t really that achievable.


1) Jason Isbell – Southeastern

Isbell’s latest album is his to-date triumph. He’s always been a great songwriter, singer, and musician, but until now he has failed to produce a wholly consistent showcase for his own work. He wrote some of the finest tunes in DBT’s middle era (“Danko/Manuel”, “Goddamn Lonely Love”, “Decoration Day”, “Outfit”) and his work with The 400 Unit and alone has resulted in a few stellar songs as well (“Alabama Pines,” “No Choice in the Matter”) but it wasn’t until now that he had a defining work that seems to be wholly his own. Southeastern is a definitive work and I have no doubt that it is but the first of many classic albums Jason has in store for listeners. Oddly enough, I wasn’t sure this record was going to place on my end-of-year list until rather recently, which makes its stake here at number 1 even more surprising to me now. I spun it a few times when it first came out and enjoyed it, felt it was probably his best personal work to date, then filed it away. Then about a month or two ago I clicked on it on my i-pod while my headphones were on and though I hadn’t planned to, listened to the whole thing in one. Then proceeded to rotate it around again for the next few days. “Cover Me Up,” and “Traveling Alone” were singles that made their way onto many mixes I made over the year and they still held up as great, great songs but the others began to be just as compelling. “Elephant” perhaps even too much–some songs are almost too emotional and powerful to make for comfortable listening and “Elephant” is one on a very short-list of such tracks for me. Yet it’s worth the discomfort because it is just so good. My personal favorite song of the batch as of this recapping though is “Songs That She Sang in the Shower”–it shows how deftly Isbell writes great songs, how he makes it seem effortless. Songs like that one display him as one of the best and most under-rated songwriters of his generation. Wit, emotion, catharsis; so much is packed into his lyrics and yet nothing falls flat, sounds pretentious or contrived. He’s equally at home opening his personal struggles up for his audience (“Super 8,” “Traveling Alone”) or telling grim yet captivating narrative tales (“Yvette”). If it were just as a songwriter that Isbell excelled at, this might not be a number 1 album for any but the most bookish and critical of lists; but Isbell compliments every lyric with excellent vocals, melodies, and guitar work. Southeastern recounts Isbell’s battle to sobriety and makes a compelling case that for him, sobriety has resulted in artistic growth and maturity. A fine, timeless work by a musician fully coming into his own and writing songs better than anyone else around him in modern popular music.


4 Responses to “The Best Albums of 2013”

  1. […] you would like to read my overall top 10 album list and reviews of those albums, click here. This list is devoted just to Metal albums; coming soon are my “10 Best Hip Hop Albums of […]

  2. […] of the year here. My overall “Top 10 Albums of the Year” list can be found by clicking here. Coming soon I will post my “Top 25 Songs of 2013″ as well as my picks for the […]

  3. […] Isbell made the best record of the year, Southeastern. I have several rotating favorite cuts from that record, yet as I mentioned in my album review, this song I have perhaps played the least. Yet I think it is by far the best song on the entire album. There is a short list of songs that I keep, songs that I love, that I think rank among the best ever written but that are so powerful, emotional, haunting, or troubling that I find it difficult to casually listen to them. I’ve started to spin this one a bit more now, but it was beginning to drift into that category for me. It’s just so raw, honest, and real; he retells a friendship with a woman dying of cancer in such an achingly present manner that it is hard to listen to without getting very sad. “No one dies with dignity” hits like a punch to the gut and speaks a deep if troubling truth by the time you reach it as a listener. Isbell’s voice is in top form here, the music is sparse but memorable, the hooks perfect, the chorus low and properly under-stated, and the lyrics likely the best written by any major popular musician this entire year. […]

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