Excuse me for the misleading title, but these are not the best albums of 2013 — saying something as extensive as that would be beyond my reason for making this list. Keep in mind, this is not necessarily because this year didn’t produce albums that could be called “the best”, but because of my predicament of being only 1 person, I clearly could not have listened to, as well as properly digested every single one of them. With that being said, these 10 picks are the albums I have deemed to be the most special; the ones which have impacted me as an individual and are perfect despite any minor or major flaws they may have. Through my travels, I have come to the conclusion that best-of lists aren’t about being “correct”, but about an expression of one’s individuality, and most importantly, a representation of our freedom to love any piece of crap we choose to.
So yes, I have decided to limit this year-end list to but 10 albums. I had originally planned for it to be 20, but then I thought it might as well be 25, and if it was going to be 25, it might as well be 30, or any other random number. So I decided to do away with attempting to commemorate every album I enjoyed this year (I only had about 5 negative reviews, so there were quite a lot) and instead focus on the ones that were always in the back of my head; the ones that happened to latch on to memories and grab hold of something real that was going on in my life through these past 12 months.
What writing album reviews has really taught me though, is that there is no album no matter how horrendously bad or typical, that I can’t derive some sort of pleasure from. Maybe this means that I shouldn’t be a critic, as when I think about it, there wasn’t one album I listened to this year that some part of me doesn’t love and admire. Even the ones I wrote negative things about I find myself returning to time and time again, and it really makes me feel bad for critics who are known for writing excessively negative and scathing reviews. I mean, music is supposed to be enjoyable right? Saying something like “we need bad albums to make the good ones be good” is just ridiculous, and can be equated to a religious conservative saying that gay marriage ruins marriage for everyone else. Anyhow, I sure am happy that I enjoy music as much as I do, and I continue to pray every night that I don’t wake up deaf. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my reviews throughout this year and can see why I’ve chosen these as my top 10.
P.S. — I cheated on this list, a lot… (There is a particularly ugly tie, I’ve included EPs, mixtapes, as well as lumped together releases from artists who had more than one release over the past 12 months)
Runner Ups: Kelela: CUT 4 ME, Neko Case: The Worse Things Get…, Baths: Obsidian, Julia Holter: Loud City Song, Forest Swords: Engravings, Wolf Eyes: No Answer Lower Floors, RP Boo: Legacy
10.) James Holden: The Inheritors
I still have yet to make up my mind between whether The Inheritors is a noise record, a chill out record, or one disguised as the other. I do know, though, that it’s the reason Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest didn’t come anywhere close to making this list. Built out of long, single take analog keyboard improvisations, these 15 tracks are all about balancing the unfolding chaos that ensues when an artist has access to such a massive horde of equipment. James Holden fully harnesses the ability to create stirring, raw, and off balanced compositions with his virtuosic talent. No matter whether he was chronicling free jazz, hauntology, krautrock, trance or techno, The Inheritors never once lost its drive/
9.) James Blake: Overgrown
This release doesn’t quite fit in with the others in my top 10. Unlike my other choices, Overgrown isn’t what one would call experimental. It’s not boundary pushing, and the sound it offers ventures closer to the mainstream than I’m usually accustomed to. But being the Blake fanatic that I am, I really forced myself to listen to Overgrown a lot, and its transformative secrets were soon revealed to me. Truly though, what we have here is actually a rather straightforward soul record that draws as much from Joni Mitchell as it does from the UK bass scene. If until now Blake has been in a state of constant flux, this is by far his most reserved and contemplative release yet. It’s no misstep for a producer as immaculate as Mr. blake though, as this is a record that proved to provide a draw unlike any other this year. With a chilly, isolated vibe that feels as though it was carved out of ice, to the deeply passionate and often profound lyricism, to Blake’s newfound vocal prowess that matches the oft used sub aquatic bass pulses with ease, Overgrown can stand right up with James’ greatest accomplishments.
8.) Arcade Fire:Reflektor/Kanye West: Yeezus (tie)
I find it funny that what were arguably the two most anticipated albums of the year also turned out to be the two most polarizing. Even a mention of one of these two albums on Facebook or Youtube will get you spammed by two varying sides to the unsolvable equation. You may feel like you’ve already heard enough about them, but the way I see it, whenever the line of approval is cut in a way like it is with these two albums you know something genius must be at work. Polarization isn’t the only thing these two masterpieces have in common though. In fact, besides Yeezus being brief and Reflektor being extensive, they pretty much offer identical listening experiences. Both are obsessed with pushing boundaries, draw heavily from the influence of their producers, have thematic elements about the warped state of humanity, and proudly declare themselves to be a work of art. When it comes down to it though, whether you liked these albums or not, these were the absolute essential albums you couldn’t not listen to if you were part of 2013. I’d personally argue that this also makes them two of the most important. If this is the sound of cockiness and overindulgence and pretentiousness, these words have never sounded better and meant more.
7.) Arca: &&&&&
This year saw some truly extraordinary and adventurous mixtapes — most notably from the likes of 18+, Le1f, and Kelela — but the most jaw dropping one for me was by far Arca’s &&&&&, whose alien tendencies have yet to diminish from my mindset throughout the extensive time I have spent with it. With this release, his production work on Yeezus and FkA Twigs’ EP2, the enigmatic producer dominated on all fronts this year and made a pretty undeniable case that he is one of the true forces to be reckoned with in electronic music. His music represents the current extreme of where beat making can go, and how far samples can be mutilated to the point of taking on entirely new forms. If you had half an hour to kill in 2013 , there were very few ways to do it that were better than this.
6.) These New Puritans: Field of Reeds
This spot was a fight between this album and Julia Holter’s Loud City Song for the year’s best orchestrally based indie record. To be honest, Julia Holter crafted an equally compelling statement, but for some reason, I’ve listened to Field of Reeds countless more times and feel an compulsive attraction towards it. The album has a certain elusiveness to it that I still to this date am unable to shake – and I’m happy continuing this undying trend until my listens reach the triple digits. Maybe it’s just my obsessive personality, but no matter how many times I listen to Field of Reeds I’ll still be dying to listen to it again in a week no matter how many other great albums I seem to find elsewhere. The orchestrations are the perfect mix of grand and minimal, the cast of characters is varied and cohesive, and I haven’t heard the type of rare beauty present here since Sigur Ros’ finest achievement, ( ).
5.) Oneohtrix Point Never: R Plus Seven
There were a whole lot of artist transformations that occured this year, but i’d say none were as fluent and as gapless as R Plus Seven. Daniel Lopatin’s new world was so fluent, in fact, that is was hard to see exactly how much had changed since the artist’s previous release, Replica, without comparing the two side by side. R Plus Seven brought all the abstract noises, found sounds, and vintage synthesizers of Replica hurdling into the 3rd dimension. These were some of the most labored over and sublimely intricate electronic manifestations of the year, as well as some of the most stripped down and otherworldly atmospherics — like a dystopian epic and a lazy Sunday wrapped into one. It’s the kind of music that makes my brain amazed it can even comprehend such a thing. It wasn’t necessarily the compositions that made this release so great though. For every time I listened to R Plus Seven, I found myself lost in existential thought, dreaming about some absurd idea that would never make sense within our world. This is music about escaping reality and concentrating on the components of life that aren’t really there. It’s the year’s best thinking man’s (or woman’s) record, in a sense.
4.) Dean Blunt: The Redeemer + Stone Island
Now this guy is a real screw up, isn’t he? Everything he puts out is sorely crafted, crumbling at the edges, only warranting a spin or two for a laugh. Only somehow, through our mocking, this music manages to grab a hold of something internal, and when it hits you it might just make you realize why you love music in the first place. All joking aside though, I always “liked” The Redeemer. Truly, I did. But I didn’t think it would be an album I would enjoy coming back to time and time again as the months went on. I thought of it as being too damaged to truly love. Admittedly, its impact didn’t entirely sink in until Stone Island: a secretly released sequel which furthered the majestic orchestrated sounds of its predecessor. These two releases together continue to stand as a grand expedition of heartache, lost souls, and the power of music in overcoming life’s greatest torment: the relationship.
3.) Burial: Truant/Rough Sleeper + Rival Dealer
The bookends of 2013 were over taken by surprise releases from London’s finest, AKA Burial. With Truant/Rough Sleeper in January and Rival Dealer in December, the producer took on a wealth of new ideas and crafted what I consider to be quite inarguably his two best releases to date. In fact, if this whole reviewing process were entirely up to me (god damn you editors!) this would have been at #1, as half of these other albums wouldn’t have even existed without Burial in the first place. Ok, maybe that’s a blanket statement, and I wouldn’t say it’s true for the next artist down the list who may have in fact…oops, I’ve already said too much! Anyway, read my reviews if you want to learn more about these stunning releases. Off to number…
2.) The Knife: Shaking The Habitual
No other album to come out this year feels as permanent as Shaking The Habitual. Contrary to popular belief, this is a complete, unmovable statement that is 100% worthy of its sky high ambitions. Not one sound or electronic ripple could be taken away or replaced to make this release any better than it already is. And although at its surface — the schizophrenic patterns, 20 minute ambient stretches, themes about gender/identity crisis — it may seem like a hard left turn for a supposed “pop” group, Shaking The Habitual is really just a continuation of what The Knife have always done best: atmosphere and sounds. Through their 12 year career they’ve continuously pushed and twisted and scrambled their formula until they’ve arrived at a new, ultimately meaningful destination to make an album (or opera) about. With its cinematic worthy running time and emphasis on extremely mutilated found sounds, Olaf and Karen have undoubtedly put out their most challenging and mystifying work yet, but unlike most double albums, it’s devoid of what one would call “filler”, and continues to be rewarding through innumerable amounts of playthroughs.
1.) Autre Ne Veut: Anxiety
This was an easy pick for me. Even if “Play By Play” was the only great song on this album — which it’s absolutely not — it still would have been album of the year for being the most groundbreaking and inspiring pop song of the last several years. Autre Ne Veut speaks towards the apex of human creativity and imagination just as Grimes and Death Grips did last year. But there’s something I find even more special about Autre though. The way he channels all his energy into belting out one awkwardly sung phrase after another; the way he grabs hold of the listener’s attention through abrasiveness, only to come off like Whitney Houston a moment later; and how he does all of this with a desperate, bleeding intensity that lays his innards scattered across the floor for us to inspect. As one would expect, the effect this sort of music has is beyond polarizing, but luckily, in my case, this demented form of pop music gives me insurmountable pleasure. These are the songs stuck in my head all day, the ones I (try to) sing in the shower, as well as the ones that inspire me to try my hand at creating my own “pop” music. Autre Ne Veut may not be the future of where pop music is headed, but with Anxiety, Arthur Ashin has made a perfect and masterful album of what pop music is truly about, as well as the heights that this tainted genre can still take us in 2013.