A Completely Objective Judgment Of The Best Albums Released In 2013

Apparently I’ve been making year-end top 10 album lists for eight years now. Eight years! That’s crazy, and what’s maybe more crazy is that only this year do I really feel I’ve started to get a good handle on what criteria I use to decide what goes on them. I think there have been some minor changes to those criteria over the years, but for anyone who’s interested, I put the main things that guided my decisions this year into a footnote.

I listened to a ton of new music this year. In previous years I barely had enough albums under my belt to round out a top 10 and it was mostly just a question of ordering them. This year I had, like, fifteen other albums that I pondered putting into my list but didn’t, and dozens of others that I listened to enough to know that they wouldn’t make it in. Listening to that much new music enough to evaluate and rank it was actually a lot of hard work! But on the other hand, I discovered a lot of gems this year, some of which I think flew under a lot of other review sites' radars. Hopefully you will like some of them as much as I did. Here goes. Each album title is followed by links to as many officially sanctioned YouTube videos as I could find, or a download link in the case of free mixtapes.

The Top 10

10. The Uncluded, Hokey Fright.

“Earthquake”. “The Aquarium”. “Organs”.

Hokey Fright definitely scored full marks for originality. Its being unlike anything else I’ve ever heard was probably what enabled it to beat many other fine albums to make this list, but of course it also had to be good in its own right.

And, of course, it is good, but one of the ways it’s delightful is how surprising it is that it works at all, much less this well. Who would have guessed that Kimya Dawson’s almost cloying, childishly wide-eyed verses would so effectively counterbalance and even enhance Aesop Rock’s verbose, raspy baritone ones? Dawson is certainly an acquired taste, but her straightforwardness serves as a cipher to unlock Aes’s often dauntingly cryptic lyrics.

So Dawson’s nakedly terrified opening verse to the claustrophobic, ominous “TV on 10” both contextualizes the story Aes tells in his lyric and lends some pathos and vulnerability to a frankly devastating climax that might otherwise have come off a bit too stoic. So, similarly, does her utterly artless childhood laundromat reminisce help ground Aesop’s metaphorical piecemeal airmailing of body parts in “Delicate Cycle”, and so does her awkward tumble of encounters in “Alligator” give us a valuable alternate perspective on Aes’s frank look at the uncomfortably compulsive aspects of adolescent sexuality.

The end result is an album with two very distinct voices that’s far greater for having brought them together, and the overall air of playfulness helps excuse even songs that seem like missteps on first listen. Maybe “Jambi Cafe” best sums it up: this is a childish album, with Kimya Dawson the child, and Aesop the cranky old man with a heart of gold giving her the candy that, like this album, “won’t heal wounds, but it will heal moods, and it’s sweet and it’s sour and it’s green and it rules.”

I wrote a more in-depth review of this album for Sputnik Music. That review is more of a defense against what I felt was an unfair previous review. Maybe it would be interesting too?

9. Cakes Da Killa, The Eulogy.

It’s a free mixtape. Go get it.

As rap music moves inexorably into the American mainstream, how’s it going to keep the air of transgression that contributed to its becoming such a force in the first place? When Rick Ross’s background as a correctional officer makes every tale of slinging cocaine suspect, when Miley Cyrus co-opts twerking as soon as it starts to make its way into the wider public consciousness, what’s a genre to do?

Well, they could try it Cakes Da Killa’s way and write rap songs about getting fucked in the ass, with such vigor and panache that straight rappers might consider following suit in the hopes of matching Cakes’s swag. But unless they can assemble a collection of unorthodox beats that blend dark and rambunctious as perfectly as The Eulogy’s do and rap over them with as much self-assurance as Cakes does, they should think twice.

The Eulogy might challenge your conception of yourself as an accepting, open-minded individual. It’s the flip side to every safe, desexualized media depiction of gay people who never kiss or make out: starting with its audacious, outrageous first line, it gives us a queer view of the sexually aggressive braggadocio of other rap music and, if it makes the straight listener feel weird where the hetero variety of rap doesn’t, it makes us question why that’s so. Or, at least, it does those things if you want to think about it. If not, let’s just say it bangs hard for a half hour straight and leave it at that.

8. Waxahatchee, Cerulean Salt.

“Swan Dive”. “Misery Over Dispute”.

I tried to think of an angle on this album that doesn’t compare it to the Mountain Goats, but I can’t. They loom too large in my music-listening history and Cerulean Salt has too many superficial similarities for me to ignore. I feel bad about it because the Male Music Reviewer praising a female musician by comparing her to some dude is kind of a sad cliché for its demonstration of how we can lazily define women’s accomplishments in terms of previous ones by men.

So mea culpa for this: I didn’t rue the absence of a new Mountain Goats album this year because I had Cerulean Salt, with its short songs, stark but effective instrumentation (like Tallahassee after American Weekend’s All Hail West Texas, maybe), and heart-punch lyrics somehow wholly unlike any I could see coming from the Goats. Katie Crutchfield writes almost exclusively about relationships, but this isn’t a breakup album and many of the relationships in question aren’t even romantic: see, for example, the alienation she wrings out of being a friend of a bride in “Dixie Cups and Jars”, or the mutual frustration in the face of a loved one’s imminent death in “Lively”. (Those two songs also illustrate her characteristic deftness with a turn of phrase in those two songs, the first with its “I’ll write a tragic epilogue, and you’ll act it out” and the second’s terrifying “I had a dream last night: we had hit separate bottoms.”) But when she does write about a breakup, as in “Swan Dive,” well, I said in March that the result was the saddest song of the year, and nine months later I haven’t changed my mind.

Ultimately, then, while for me the Mountain Goats cast a long shadow over anyone who remotely resembles them, Cerulean Salt is its own beast: a devastating but lyrically economical jewel of an album and one that’ll have me avidly keeping an eye out for whatever Katie Crutchfield gets up to next.

7. These New Puritans, Field of Reeds.

“Fragment 2”. “V (Island Song)”. “Organ Eternal”.

This is a hard album for me to write about, because I have a feeling that it Means Something, but I don’t really know what that is. The plain facts: it’s nine songs long; the lead singer and songwriter has said it’s intended to be structured as three mini-suites of three songs each; it’s got several long songs, but it’s also long on atmosphere and short on melody; the lead singer is not an especially proficient vocalist, and many auxiliary singers pick up his slack. A fact that is less plain: it’s the most evocative album I listened to in 2013. It’s called Field of Reeds, but when I listen to it I see a floodplain. Perhaps because of the numerous references to islands, this seems to me a very damp album. And perhaps because of the occluded, fragmentary nature of the songs and lyrics (the single is called “Fragment 2”, for God’s sake), my mind’s eye sees a low, heavy mist on that floodplain too; occasionally, at the few moments when some drums or queasy synthesizer kick in, the mist parts, or it doesn’t and I see unsettling shapes moving briskly in it.

Evocative.

There’s a lot of musical machinery under the hood of this album: a children’s choir, heavy orchestration, the man with the deepest voice in England. But it never feels excessive or like showing off; indeed, despite all the different parts and the complicated, sometimes dissonant harmonies that pop up everywhere, this album sounds downright economical, even sparse. And I demur on trying to investigate its lyrics here. Even if I could do so in a sensible way, their end result, to me, is the same as that of the music. This album takes me to a place when I listen to it in a way that no other album on this list does.

6. Chance the Rapper, Acid Rap.

It’s a free mixtape. Just download the whole damn thing.

My number 1 album and summer jam of 2010 had a first track that concluded with Big Boi saying, “Damn. And that weren’t nothing but the intro.” On Acid Rap, Chance the Rapper comes right out and straight up calls his first track “Good Ass Intro,” and yep, he’s right. It’s as much a statement of intent as Big Boi’s “Feel Me” was, but with the vocoder replaced with soul and a shit ton of actual rapping.

It seems possible to me that someone could hate Chance’s rap voice, of which Jenn said when she heard it “It sounds like a Muppet villain rapping.” But it’s too perfect a match for Chance’s herky-jerky half-melodic smartass flow for me to agree. His ad-lib, which he employs frequently and with gusto (and which some of his guests try unsuccessfully to emulate), is a strangled yelp, and I have a hard time seeing it as anything but endearingly enthusiastic. Like Chance is just so excited to be rapping over these beats that all he can manage is an inchoate “IGH!

So Chance is in his own lane on the basis of his voice alone, but he was also 20 when he released Acid Rap. His lyrics reflect that immaturity (which is why I’m willing to excuse, for now, his use of “f****t” on “Favorite Song”) but blend it with thoughtfulness in equal measure. “Pusha Man” (linked from “ad-lib” above) and its “hidden” track “Paranoia” maybe throw these two aspects of Chance into sharpest relief: the former a free-wheeling boast-fest about drugs and sex and the latter practically a meditation on seasonal violence in his hometown of Chicago. But then there’s also “Cocoa Butter Kisses”, where Chance laments how his drug use keeps his family members from wanting to hug him, induces his two guests to do the same, and I can think of no better word for it than “charming”. The same applies to his heartfelt shout in the chorus of “Chain Smoker” of “This part, this part right here right now, this part my shit!” which you can’t but agree with.

5. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City.

“Diane Young”. “Ya Hey”. “Step”.

This is the first Vampire Weekend that doesn’t feel somehow like it’s trying too hard, the first one that seems like it has nothing to prove but that Vampire Weekend can write songs that are thoughtful but still fun. “Step” is maybe the song that sounds most like it could have been on a previous VW album, with its harpsichord arpeggios and questionably necessary namedrops. It’s good, but the songs I like the most are the ones that are actually steps away from those tropes.

“Unbelievers”, for example, which sounds like a modern spin on a pop song from the ‘60s. It takes an utterly straightforward song structure and gives it a shot in the arm with lyrics about coming to terms with what atheism means for your prospect of an afterlife: heavy stuff, but Vampire Weekend’s musical approach tends to lighten everything it touches. Thus “Diane Young”, whose title means nothing but is a homophone for “dying young”, whose video spoofs “The Last Supper”, is the most raucous blast of a song on the album even as Ezra Koenig hollers “Nobody knows what the future holds / And it’s bad enough just getting old!”

A friend of mine with whom I like to talk music said he sort of wished this album ended with “Ya Hey”, which is indeed almost a perfect closing track. But there’s a charm, too, in following it up with the dirge of “Hudson”, which finally makes musically explicit some of the morose lyrics sprinkled throughout Modern Vampires, and ending with the conciliatory throwaway “Young Lion”. It feels risky, like Vampire Weekend putting album-wide themes over traditional considerations of sequencing. And I think this band is in a position where I appreciate it when they’re willing to take a risk.

4. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels.

“A Christmas Fucking Miracle”. It’s also a free mixtape. Download the Whole Fucking Album.

It’s been a good year for short albums, or maybe my attention span is just getting shorter. Run the Jewels is a short album, like an explosion in slow motion, from the incendiary title track (“Oh dear, what the fuck have we here?” goes the opening line) to the smouldering embers of “A Christmas Fucking Miracle.”

That last song is as close as these two ever get to anything resembling optimism, El-P with his relentless nihilism, Killer Mike with his boundless rage, the pair with their inexhaustible lyrics and indisputable chemistry trading bars about how fucked the world is and how many skulls they’re gonna have to crack on their crazy ride through it. It’s a lot, it turns out. This is an album that takes a very narrow lode of lyrical expression and mines it for all it’s worth: El-P wallows in how this fucked world unmoors him and indulges his self-destructiveness in “Sea Legs”, Killer Mike pops some shrooms and goes on a vision quest with a stripper in “No Come Down”, and the two do a little pep talking on “A Christmas Fucking Miracle”, but these are just sideshows. The bulk of Run the Jewels is Mike and El convincingly proclaiming their intent to destroy all lesser MCs—which is to say, all other MCs—and basically burn shit down and salt the earth. The album is short because it needs to be, because annihilation doesn’t take long if you do it right. These two make quick work of it.

3. Okkervil River, The Silver Gymnasium.

“It Was My Season”. “Down Down the Deep River” (live). “Stay Young”.

I never had any doubt that Will Sheff is a fantastic songwriter. His band Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy is, I maintain, the closest the 2000s gave us to a new In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. That point of reference extended to my impression of Sheff’s voice, which like Jeff Mangum’s is a bit pitchy (especially on Okkervil River’s first two albums), a bit rough around the edges (but generally in a good way), and ultimately mostly playing second fiddle to Sheff’s evocative lyrics with their strikingly long sentences containing subordinate clauses.

But I realized recently, listening to The Silver Gymnasium, that perhaps it’s time to revise that impression. Sheff’s voice seems newly confident, like it’s taking center stage here in a way that it hasn’t before: no small achievement in a like 6-person band. And now I see that it’s pretty remarkable to have a voice that can be powerful enough to blast through as many layers as it often does here but also vulnerable enough to convince us with a line like “It’s not alright / It’s not even close to alright.”

That’s the line on which “Down Down the Deep River"—the third song on Gymnasium and one of its two on my shortlist for songs of the year—pivots. "River” is the album in six-minute microcosm, making vivid use of Sheff’s apparent ambivalence about his own nostalgia for his childhood. That ambivalence is reinforced even more explicitly on the next song, “Pink Slips,” where he sings “this wish just to go back, hey / when I know I wasn’t ever ever happy / show me my best memory, it’s probably super crappy.” Much of this album takes place in the past, but these two songs invoke it most strongly in their lyrics (“Stay Young” wins the award for doing so musically, by a country mile).

The whole thing seems to be the first album to really deliver on Will Sheff’s sharp turn into self-reflexive, sometimes self-critical pontification about rock music on Okkervil River’s last three albums, like that reflection enabled him to dive into his past, and music’s, and come up with an album that sounds like a classic. Maybe not a capital-C classic. But a great rock and roll album.

2. Buke and Gase, General Dome.

The title track. “Houdini Crush” (unofficial fan-made music video, trigger warning for some date rapey themes)

General Dome starts off so deceptively, with Aron Sanchez’s guitar/bass hybrid churning out a stupidly basic riff in eighth notes in 4/4 time. It’s the simplest damn thing, and it gives you a chance to really appreciate how that instrument isn’t quite like any guitar or bass you’ve ever heard before, no matter what effects other bands pile on them.

That uncomplicated chance to adjust to this new sound might just be to get you used to it so that you’re ready to appreciate the off-kilter rhythmic tricks that Aron, his bandmate Arone (yes, really) Dyer and their respective instruments will be playing over the course of this album. That opening song “Houdini Crush” starts in straight 4/4 time but sure doesn’t stay in it. “Split Like A Lip, No Blood on the Beard” has what sounds like two instruments playing in unison before a heavily syncopated third one abruptly comes in and foreshadows the vocal rhythm in the chorus. These are two of a number of techniques that Buke and Gase use repeatedly to make their two stringed instruments, along with a bass drum and foot-mounted tambourine, sound like a full band. I could go on for another few paragraphs about those techniques, probably. But such was my pleasure in the straight up songs on this album that I didn’t even really consciously notice them until now, ten months into listening to the thing.

Singer Arone has a perfect voice for this spikily rhythmic bramble patch of an album. In “Contortion in Training”, she uses that voice to float over the tumult in the verses and bridge; in the chorus, she slices right through it. She deftly sings melodies that leap from pitch to pitch either for the joy of it or because they’re trying to escape from something, and while the lyrics make it seem like the latter more often than not, this is a band that takes anxiety and jitteriness and makes them a blast to listen to.

I reviewed this album at Amazon too because it didn’t have any reviews at the time, which was a travesty. That review goes into a little more detail about particular songs.

1. Laura Stevenson, Wheel.

The title track. “Runner”. “The Move” (live).

Some albums claw their way onto my year-end list partly through sheer novelty or audacity. I still have to enjoy them, of course, but they might also have some challenging or off-putting elements that I grit my teeth through because the payoffs are worth it. (Hokey Fright, well done.)

Wheel is not one of those albums. The only thing even slightly “challenging” about it is ten seconds of cacophony in the beginning and middle of “Bells and Whistles.” Nope, this album is great for very old-fashioned reasons: the kind of lyrics that draw you in and make you want to make sense of them, sung in catchy but not cliché melodies by a strong, piercing, clear voice over music that takes the best bits of folk, rock, country and punk and shakes them up in a bag.

Those lyrics, though. You might have to read them, because sometimes the bells and the whistles make deafening sounds, and sometimes the filigree waterdrops around her head absorb every word that she says. But you should read them, because like the verdant, hollow world on the album’s cover, they create a place that you want to inhabit, to hide from some terrible, inevitable truths.

But at the middle of this album’s 13 songs you’ll find just a hole. This trick was used in the graphic novel Asterios Polyp, where the illustration of the crater at the exact center of the book seemed to suggest an emptiness at the novel’s core. But here it’s more a warning: when Stevenson undertakes her own journey to the center of the earth, her retreat is “melodrama, it’s confused chemicals” and she promises to return. The surface is where the action is. More than that, it’s where such beauty as we’re going to find in our short lives will be, and Wheel seeks out that beauty and wrests it from the void before and after us.


Epilogue

Other Music That I Considered, However Briefly, For My Top 10 at Some Point

Other Music That I May Have Liked Okay But Was Never Going to Be in My Top 10

Music That Didn’t Grab Me Enough for Me to Listen to It Enough for It to Even Make Any of the Above Lists

Music That Grabbed Me, But In An Unpleasant And/Or Disappointing Way

Things I Missed In 2013 But Still Want To Listen To (More)

Things That I Kept Reading About Or Seeing But Intend to Sleep on Unless Someone I Know Personally Tells Me They Rule

Things I Refuse To Listen To Just Because of Their Cover Art


  1. Objective reviews of art don’t exist. With that in mind, I’m going to just list some bullet points that should make it fairly clear what I, personally, care about when I’m reviewing:

    • I’m an unapologetically old-fashioned listener: I like to listen to an album all the way through, without skipping songs or even pausing to do something else if I can avoid it. I’d probably be into vinyl if I had any interest in finding a place to put it.
    • So: I like albums that hang together as a whole, that have some kind of arc to the sequencing even if they don’t have an explicit narrative. It’s okay for albums to have weaker tracks if they use them in an interesting way or at least start and finish strong. I don’t like front-loaded albums. Any album that I’m satisfied turning off halfway through probably won’t make my year-end list.
    • I try to get some diversity in my top 10. This means if I’m having a hard time deciding between two albums, I may opt for the one further outside my comfort zone or the one that represents a less mainstream viewpoint. That includes trying to include more women and people of color, though it doesn’t mean I’ll contravene my actual enjoyment of an album to do so. I realized after the fact that my top 10 of 2012 had only one woman on it. (She was #1, but still.) I’m not thrilled about that and I’m trying to amend it in this and future years, but I want to make it clear that I can do that by listening to more music by people who aren’t straight white males, not by subverting my standards.
    • I rank albums by how much I enjoy listening to them and how often I find myself coming back to them. This will tend to ding “difficult”, atonal or non-melodic music; while I often like it, I rarely find myself revisiting it often. Them’s the breaks. Tiny Mix Tapes is a good place to go to read reviews that champion difficult music and they’ve had some genuinely abrasive stuff at the very top of their year-end lists.
    • I like foreground music. Sometimes you want something you can just throw on while you direct your attention elsewhere, but I tend to have more appreciation for music that makes me want to pick it apart and figure out what makes it work for me, or music that seizes me by the throat and forces me to listen. Part of this means that I put a little more weight on lyrics than I think some other people might. This has two corollaries. One is that lyrical howlers—trite lines, lines that make me cringe—are a death stroke. The other is that I find instrumental music difficult to evaluate, and it rarely makes my top 10. I’m working on it.

    The title of this list is sarcastic, in case it’s not obvious now. Go enjoy my list.