It’s the moment about a half dozen of you have been waiting for! After unveiling my favorite songs and concerts of 2013 earlier this month, I’m now ready to share with you my 10 favorite albums of the year. For reference, here are my favorite albums lists from 2011 and 2012.
Before I get to the long-form thoughts on the 10 best albums I heard this year, here are albums 20 through 11 on my list, accompanied by one song from that album.
20. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (“Lose Yourself to Dance”)
19. Toro y Moi – Anything In Return (“So Many Details”)
18. Kings of Leon – Mechanical Bull (“Family Tree”)
17. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady (“Can’t Live Without Your Love”)
16. Kanye West – Yeezus (“Bound 2”)
15. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II (“Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)”)
14. Washed Out – Paracosm (“All I Know”)
13. Arcade Fire – Reflektor (“Afterlife”)
12. Phoenix – Bankrupt! (“The Real Thing”)
11. Foals – Holy Fire (“Inhaler”)
Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2013.
I’ve counted on Jimmy Eat World to deliver the melodic rock goods since freshman year of high school. Every three years, they release a new album of pop-rock tunes. They tour, make a couple Boston stops, then head back to Arizona to cook up more. This year, the result was the superb Damage. Like 2010’s Invented, there’s a common thread here, with lead singer Jim Adkins calling it an “adult breakup record.” Adkins is rarely oblique with his lyrics, with hooky opener “Appreciation” evoking someone moving out (“We build / We box / We carry on / As people we forgot”). The landscape of Damage is littered with these heartfelt rockers: the frantic “Lean,” with its fuzzy riff; lead single “I Will Steal You Back” carrying a signature ripping Tom Linton guitar solo; straight-forward rocket “How You’d Have Me” with the best drum work here from the underrated Zach Lind. “No, Never” enters my Jimmy Eat World pantheon, hitting an emotional pitch with breakup lyrics, ringing guitars and their unmistakable pacing. “No, Never” could be on any Jimmy Eat World album, which is no small feat. And, for the first time ever, they end an album without a grandiose closer: in fact, they went completely counter with the sparse “You Were Good,” a beautiful acoustic ditty masking the most scathing lyrics in their catalogue. Adkins sings that “it was good, it was good, and it was gone.” The same goes for the 38 minutes of Damage. I can’t wait until they come back around in three years time.
Smith Westerns were bound to grow up at some point. Sure, their hair still gets in their eyes, they still have a general pissant attitude, and, hell, the best song on their third album, Soft Will, is called “Varsity.” Yet it’s impossible to listen to this more complete, more polished body of work and not be happy about their direction. While lacking some of the anthemic punch of Dye it Blonde lynchpins like “Weekend” and “All Die Young,” Soft Will shows a band maturing around the ever-expanding songwriting chops of Cullen Omori and the playing of his bassist brother Cameron and lead guitarist Max Kakacek. The newfound growth takes Soft Will in surprising and rewarding directions. “Idol,” with its shimmering, liquidy licks, appears to be Omori speaking fondly of a father figure in his life who later does him wrong. Faster-paced “Glossed” sounds so George Harrison-esque I suspect several Rickenbacker 12-strings were used in its production. “White Oath” has a funereal feel until the guitars really kick in around the 2:55 mark, when budding virtuoso Kakacek takes over. There’s even a super-ominous instrumental, “XXXIII.” On the aforementioned closer “Varsity,” Omori goes to new glam-rock inspired heights with his lyrics (“Safety came in numbers / But all I needed was just one”) and longing guitars and synths from beginning to end. Now that Smith Westerns have finally started growing up, there’s no telling where their new wisdom will take them.
I’ll say this about Cut Copy: they’re not afraid to take chances. After their last two successful LPs, Zonoscope and In Ghost Colours, the Australian electro-rocking quartet went in a different direction with Free Your Mind. Lead singer Dan Whitford said they drew influence from the two Summers of Love in 1967 and 1988-1989 and that’s palpable throughout. The blow-away title track is an explosion with congas, keyboards and lyrics that could have been conjured by Timothy Leary. That’s followed by the dance stomp of “We Are Explorers” that still has euphoric blasts and a mid-song conga solo, then trance-like “Let Me Show You Love,” a hypnotic jam with major Whitford voice effects. Already, this is the most unusual Cut Copy music ever put to record and we’re not at the weirdest aspect of Free Your Mind yet. That would be the absurd spoken word interludes that unfortunately bring the album down as a whole. Making up for that is the brilliance of bass-driven “In Memory Capsule,” acoustic-fueled “Dark Corners & Mountain Tops,” and Zonoscope-ian “Meet Me in the House of Love.” But they chart new territory on “Take Me Higher,” a joyous take on the acid rock inspired by that latter Summer of Love. “Take Me Higher” could have been a Stone Roses song from a day they messed around with a synthesizer in the studio. Free Your Mind isn’t Cut Copy’s best, yet the results can’t be denied when they’re at their most focused.
And then one night, it existed. Kevin Shields, the genius of noise who created My Bloody Valentine’s flawless Loveless, announced to Earth his 22-years-in-the-making follow-up was finally ready in early February. m b v isn’t Loveless, nor does it aim to be, nor is it possible for any album to be, even by the band that brought it to life in 1991. Instead, m b v stands alone, oblivious of anything else currently in the pop music consciousness. Shields draws from a most logical source, the only one that’s ever mattered to his painstakingly-complex style: himself. So many highlights are reminiscent of the past: opener “she found now” has the longingly beautiful balance of “Sometimes”; poppy triumph “new you” is a redux of the highly-regarded “Soon”; and the bone-crushing “nothing is” harkens back to the Isn’t Anything era. But relying on the past doesn’t stop Shields from looking forward. While the trippy, synthed-out, daring “in another way” is a breath of disquieting air, closer “wonder 2” bears no resemblance to anything I’ve heard in my life. It sounds like a helicopter stuck inside a washing machine. Yet somehow it’s melodic and listenable, just like everything My Bloody Valentine has done. Some view m b v as a gift merely for existing, with many of these songs originating at various points over the last two decades of work by Shields. But I hope beyond all hopes that Shields is nowhere close to finishing his exploration of the possibilities of guitar sound.
What Scottish trio Chvrches are attempting to do isn’t easy. To occupy a spot in the crowded electro-pop scene in 2013, a band or artist really has to stand out. How can you get notoriety when near every other band was weaned on New Order and Depeche Mode? And, truth be told, Chvrches debut full-length is a relatively no-nonsense effort in this space. What makes them different? It’s simply the quality of the songwriting, their fully-formed maturity as a band, the sheer number of outstanding songs and the distinctive vocals of lead singer Lauren Mayberry. Her fantastic voice makes songs like lurching opening “The Mother We Share,” frantic and fast “We Sink,” cool and creeping “Tether” and hard-stomping “Lies” so indelible and part of an outstanding stretch that opens The Bones of What You Believe. The only missteps on this album are the ones where Martin Doherty takes lead and on future releases I suspect Mayberry will be the sole vocalist. What I find so impressive about Chvrches here is their ability to alternate between catchy electro-pop in songs like “Recover” and “Gun,” then go to a much more dark, moody and dramatic place with “Night Sky” and “Science/Visions” in effortless motion. The way they move between the two makes me believe Chvrches will go as far as their talent will take them in the coming years. Bands like M83 and Passion Pit better watch their backs; these Scots are for real.
It’s been fun to not only watch Arctic Monkeys grow but to grow with them. Amazingly, they’re already five albums into their career as they, like me, approach 30. There’s a sense in AM the once-wild boys are ready to settle down, but not without a fight. While some of the songs really rock, like very early single “R U Mine?” and building crusher “Arabella,” there’s something new linking most of the songs together: a killer groove. It starts early on slinky opener “Do I Wanna Know” with its heavy riff and lead singer Alex Turner’s unmistakable croons. With images like “spilling drinks on my settee” and that “nights are meant for saying things you can’t say tomorrow,” Turner hits the theme of getting over late, drunk, pointless nights out. On similar creeper “One For the Road,” Turner “thought it was dark outside” when his potential partner felt much differently about their prospects. The album’s one slow song, the disguised-titled “No. 1 Party Anthem,” is about a prowling, collar-popping douchebag trying to score, only the way Turner tells it, that sunglasses-indoors a-hole is you. “Call off the search for your soul / Or put it on hold again,” Turner advises. Now that’s a definitive statement worthy of a generation that can’t make up its mind. There’s also the classically-long titled “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” that’s the closest thing to funk in their catalogue. Once we get to the finale, “I Wanna Be Yours,” Turner is finally ready to declare love to his one and only. But again, there’s a catch: the words aren’t his, instead belonging to legendary English street poet John Cooper Clarke. Still, Arctic Monkeys continued their growth on AM, and there’s no doubt we’ll be respecting them in the a.m. now, too.
Vampire Weekend haters piss me off. “Oh, Ezra Koenig is SUCH a TOOL.” “They make music for people who wear boat shoes and drive BMWs.” “How FREAKING pretentious can a band be?” Spare me. Each Vampire Weekend album has represented a step in the development of a great band, with their debut establishing a unique Afro-pop sound and their second pushing their boundaries in numerous-if-disparate directions. Modern Vampires of the City finds Koenig and his compatriots settling into an area of creative cohesion among their influences and touching on a score of worldly topics, among them God, faith and existence. Anyone who still hates Vampire Weekend after this is just trying to be cool and needs to try harder. Plaintive, piano-driven opener “Obvious Bicycle” saunters into the acoustic guitar and organ jaunt of “Unbelievers,” which is the first of Modern’s songs to explore faith and the speaker’s place on Earth. “Step” is faux-funky; “Diane Young” is a frantic pop marvel with its play-on-words title and chorus; “Don’t Lie” is 2013 chamber pop at its finest. “Hannah Hunt” is the album’s emotional center, telling the story of a cross-country break-up with Koenig’s best-ever and most tortured vocals. “Everlasting Arms” comes off like a stripped-down take on Paul Simon’s iconic Graceland, harkening back to Vampire Weekend’s early African-influenced era. Quirky and fast “Finger Back” (with its great couplet “I don’t wanna live like this / But I don’t wanna die”) and “Worship You” follow before theological anthem “Ya Hey,” yet another great play-on-spiritual-words. Koenig pulls no punches with his lyrics “through the fire and through the flames.” The hype was right in every way on Modern Vampires of the City. If critics of Vampire Weekend still exist, it can’t be possibly on artistic merit anymore.
In 2010, Local Natives burst onto the indie rock scene with their fantastically-great debut Gorilla Manor. It was the soundtrack to a summer spent traipsing around Seacoast New Hampshire, providing welcome hard-rocking, somewhere-between-Grizzly Bear-and-Fleet Foxes melodies for the many miles I logged thanks to my job. For 2013, follow-up Hummingbird was a soundtrack of its own, representing the entirety of this year because of its January release. There isn’t a breakout hit from Hummingbird like Gorilla Manor’s knockout opener “Wide Eyes.” Instead, Hummingbird is stocked with impressive highlights showcasing a natural sophisticated progression of their sound, stoked by producer Aaron Dessner of the National. It’s marked by both quiet and loud moments, melded together for maximum emotional exposure. There was a lot of sadness surrounding the creation of Hummingbird, between the departure of original bassist Andy Hamm and the death of guitarist/keyboardist Kelcey Ayer’s mother. That sadness is felt most fervently on penultimate masterpiece “Colombia,” where Ayer openly wonders if his love in his mother’s final days is enough. It’s so personal, it’s like you’re eavesdropping on a conversation you shouldn’t hear, making it a moment of stunning courage for Ayer to share with us. Other lighter spots include opener “You & I” and its great Ayer vocals; “Ceilings” and its beautiful guitar arpeggios; “Three Months” with its soft piano and guitar colors. There’s also mid-tempo wonder “Heavy Feet,” where co-lead Taylor Rice takes over with Matt Frazier’s scattering drumming. Then, we’ve got the rockers, like the clash of “Breakers,” the catchy guitar romp of “Black Balloons,” and the urgency of “Wooly Mammoth.” They all come together in a serious sound crafted by these Los Angelenos and their well-versed producer. I got the chance to meet Local Natives in March and I told Frazier, quite bluntly, that I although I loved Hummingbird, there were still heights his band could reach. Instead of getting defensive, he was pleased. Matt said, “That’s good. That means we can still get better.” I have a feeling Hummingbird won’t be the last soundtrack for my life to come from Local Natives.
I discovered Haim earlier this year when they were scheduled to open for Vampire Weekend at BU. Either the schedule was incorrect or the three California-based sisters never made it to Agganis that night, because I never saw them. Little did I know Haim, with guitarists Danielle and Alana and bassist Este, would become my favorite new band of 2013 and make one of the best pop-rock albums this decade with Days Are Gone, working with VW producer Ariel Rechtshaid. The sisters who range in age from 22 to 27 have played together most of their lives and while being a “new” band in a popular sense they’ve worked hard to develop an eclectic, rock-based sound so polished it’s downright scary. It starts immediately with world-beating opener “Falling,” a perfect Thriller-era marvel of dramatic pop. Things get more fun on the next few tracks, with “Forever,” “The Wire” and “If I Could Change Your Mind,” each with their signature pop flair and all three sisters taking lead vocals at various times, showing off the full range of their talents. A lot of the lyrics deal with scorned or soon-to-be-scorned lovers, with “The Wire” particularly venomous. (Have we figured out exactly what the hell Danielle is saying during the choruses?) Things go a bit deeper on “Honey & I,” the at-times quiet loomer that builds to a crashing crescendo. Lighter and underrated pop ditty “Don’t Save Me” is followed by two semi-experimental rockers, the synth-propelled title track and the out-of-this-world “My Song 5.” It’s hard to believe anyone besides Justin Timberlake could pull this off and call it pop, but “My Song 5” (that title had to be influenced by GarageBand, no?) is just weird enough to be a classic. Next, “Go Slow” is the album’s bedrock, a beautiful catharsis about a failed relationship with incredible Haim sister harmonies. Days Are Gone closes with fast-moving “Let Me Go” and the almost-celebratory “Running If You Call My Name,” capping an unforgettable debut. It’s hard to believe this is only the beginning for Haim.
For many reasons, I found myself in a much better place in 2013 than any other year of my life. Because of that, I wondered how I’d receive new music from the National. In 2011, I tweeted the National were the perfect band for “a white 25-year-old college grad who lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment.” It’s hard to call anything the National released on their previous four albums as sunny or bright. On 2010’s unimpeachable High Violet, song titles included “Sorrow” and “Terrible Love.” This spring brought news of a new album to be called, of all things, Trouble Will Find Me. How could I identify with Matt Berninger, the Dessners, the Devendorfs and their dour tones if I was no longer dour myself? It didn’t matter. Trouble Will Find Me finds the National as masters of their indie rock domain, at worst on par with their finest work, showcasing what they do best. As with all their slow-burning albums, you have to live with it over time to appreciate it. From the opening acoustic strums of “I Should Live In Salt” to the expressly downbeat and more-monotone-than-normal “Demons”; from the “Bloodbuzz Ohio” callback of “Don’t Swallow the Cap” to Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers power chords of “Sea of Love”; from the exhausted yells of “This is the Last Time” to Bryan Devendorf’s typical galaxy-shifting drumming on “Graceless”; from the sad shuffle of “Slipped” to the lilting longing love of “I Need My Girl”: you’re in the presence of greatness with each listen and with each listen you want more. Berninger is either at his most brilliant or most mad with his lyrics, his common contrast taken to extreme. “I was teething on roses / I was in Guns ‘n Noses” he blurts out in brooding opus “Humiliation.” Yet penultimate stunner “Pink Rabbits” has downtrodden Berninger as “a white girl in a crowd of white girls in a park” and “a television version of a person with a broken heart.” It’s both perfect and so terribly broken. Sentiments like those helped me realize connecting with a great album isn’t necessarily about identifying it with a place and time in your life. It’s about finding something that simply connects. Over the last six years no band has done that for me like the National, with Trouble Will Find Me perhaps the best collection of those connections yet.