The end of the year is approaching, which means it’s list-making time! Huzzah!
2013 was a great year for music. I listened to a lot albums, and while I didn’t hear any stone-cold classics, I heard a lot of great ones. So many, in fact, that instead of doing a top 5, which I did last year, I’m doing a top 20.
Before I dive in, a couple of disclaimers. First, I listened to a lot of albums, but I didn’t listen to all of them. It’s entirely possible that next year I’ll discover some really great albums from this year. It happened to me this year with Half Moon Run’s Dark Eyes and Anberlin’s Vital. So if I didn’t mention a really great album that you think I’d like, then list it in the comments below, and I’ll try my best to listen to it at some point. Secondly, in the interest of fairness, I’m leaving off extended plays from this list, because it’s hard to compare them to full-lengths. Sorry, Bloc Party, Arrows Over Athens, and Driver Friendly.
Alright, with that out of the way, let’s get our hands dirty.
20. I the Mighty – Satori
I the Mighty’s lead singer, Brent Walsh, is a huge fan of Coheed and Cambria – such a huge fan, in fact, that he has a tattoo of that band’s Keywork logo on his arm. Like Coheed’s lead singer, Claudio Sanchez, Walsh has a flair for theatrics. This is apparent on I the Mighty’s latest release, Satori. His band’s musical histrionics would be unbearable in the hands of a less capable singer, but Walsh has the confidence and the chops to pull them off. Satori isn’t genre-busting post-hardcore, but its furious riffing, impassioned vocals, and often intelligent lyrics put it at the top of the class.
Best tracks: “Ivy”, “Artful Temptress (Paint Me Senseless)”, “Embers”.
19. Streetlight Manifesto – The Hands That Thieve
At some point, Streetlight Manifesto guitarist and lead singer Tomas Kalnoky had to stop being so damn angry. Anger served him well on his band’s previous releases, Everything Goes Numb and Somewhere in the Between, but on The Hands That Thieve, he opts for a little self-reflection. The result is a series of sober contemplations on life and death, wrapped up in Streetlight’s signature brand of hard-rock-meets-third-wave-ska.
Best tracks: “The Three of Us”, “The Hands that Thieve”, “Toe to Toe”.
18. Volcano Choir – Repave
Justin Vernon rose to fame as the frontman of indie folk outfit Bon Iver, whose debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, evoked images of lonely winter nights spent in a log cabin. It was lauded as a masterpiece, and rightfully so; there was nothing quite like Vernon’s mixture of ethereal falsetto and lo-fi acoustic guitar out there. But when Bon Iver released their sophomore effort, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, they opted for a more typical baroque pop approach, and the results were… well… pretty fucking terrible. BI,BI was somehow both formless and overblown, an unentertaining slog of an album that shed all of FE,FA’s intimacy for boring grandiosity. There had to be some middle ground between the two, and funnily enough, Vernon found it with his other band, Volcano Choir. Repave is that band’s sophomore effort, and it’s even more finely honed than their debut. It leaves behind Bon Iver’s baroque pop inclinations for sprawling post-rock soundscapes. But as its best tracks demonstrate, it can also be catchy, like the supremely fun “Acetate.” If Volcano Choir is capable of putting out an album this good, maybe Vernon should work with them full-time.
Best tracks: “Tiderays”, “Acetate”, “Dancepack”.
17. Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt
Pearl Jam has been in the biz for a long time, and with that kind of longevity comes a sort of inevitability to the solidity of their releases. Pearl Jam isn’t going to release a bad album any time soon. Whether or not each new of album of theirs will be good, however, is a matter of debate. Well, even though it sort of runs out of steam towards the end, Lightning Bolt turns out to be a good release. It’s at times energetic, like in twin openers “Getaway” and “Mind Your Manners,” at times mysterious, like in album centrepieces “Infallible” and “Pendulum,” and at times delicate, like in “Sirens” and “Sleeping by Myself.” But what it is at all times is… well… solid. Let’s just say solid.
Best tracks: “Getaway”, “Lightning Bolt”, “Infallible”.
16. Moving Mountains – Moving Mountains
My original review of this album wasn’t wholly positive, but Moving Mountains has since grown on me a lot. I still don’t think “Chords” and “Under a Falling Sky” are good songs, but I’ve come to appreciate the delicate beauty that permeates the rest of the album. “Swing Set” and “Apsides” may be some of the prettiest tracks that Moving Mountains has ever released. Now the band is on an indefinite hiatus, and this self-titled album stands as their final message to the world. Usually, bands go out with a whimper or a bang. But Moving Mountains is mature enough not to deal in those kinds of extremes; rather, this release is a simple statement: “This is our music; judge it on its own merits.”
Best tracks: “Burn Pile”, “Seasonal”, “Apsides”.
15. Kanye West – Yeezus
Kanye West is always going to be one of the most controversial figures in hip hop. If you thought he was going to mellow out, then Yeezus will prove you wrong. It’s designed to be a harsh listen, full of industrial effects and weird time changes. In fact, West might have invented a new genre of music – math rap – proving once again that he’s one of the most innovative musicians in the biz. But it’s the record’s subject matter that courts the most controversy. West is perhaps angrier than he’s ever been on this album, spitting out fiery rhymes about race, class, and American culture. In a year of George Zimmerman’s innocent verdict, racist department store employees who suspect black shoppers of stealing merchandise, and Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly asserting that Santa has to be white, Yeezus is the album we all needed.
Best tracks: “On Sight”, “New Slaves”, “Blood on the Leaves”.
14. Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady
I’ve always been perplexed as to why prog enthusiasts haven’t embraced Janelle Monáe. Her albums weave a saga of a dystopian, futuristic society where humans and androids coexist. She’s basically an R&B Coheed and Cambria. I suspect that it’s due to the intersection of a variety of factors, including genre, marketing, gender, and race. In any case, those who overlook The Electric Lady are missing out one of the year’s finest releases, a record that zings from hard rock to rap to soulful balladry with wild abandon. Even if the second half of the album drags a bit, the first half is so strong that it deserves a berth on this list. I mean, try not to shake what your mama gave you when “Q.U.E.E.N.” or “We Were Rock & Roll” start playing!
Best tracks: “Q.U.E.E.N.”, “Electric Lady”, “We Were Rock & Roll”.
13. Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse
After the somewhat disappointing The Winter of Mixed Drinks, I wasn’t super-excited for this Scottish indie rock band’s follow-up. But Pedestrian Verse proved my doubts wrong. Their major-label debut reclaims the energy of their sophomore effort, The Midnight Organ Fight, but filters it through a slightly slicker production job. The result is a powerful, often depressing, indie rock album. However, because of its bright melodies, it doesn’t get bogged down in its sad-sack attitude, unlike some other albums (*cough* The National *cough*). Well done, Frightened Rabbit.
Best tracks: “December’s Traditions”, “Dead Now”, “State Hospital”.
12. The Sounds – Weekend
The Sounds’ previous release, Something to Die For, saw the band confused about whether to rock out or take to the dance floor. Weekend is clearly a step away from the dance floor, but it’s not a step towards pure rock ‘n roll either. If anything, Weekend recaptures the spirit of the band’s best album, Crossing the Rubicon. But while Rubicon was a contemplative, nostalgia-drenched affair, Weekend is celebratory. There’s a great sense of fun permeating the entire record, one that shows that even as the members of The Sounds grow up, it’s still possible to have a good time.
Best tracks: “Hurt the Ones I Love”, “Weekend”, “Great Day”.
11. Coheed and Cambria – The Afterman: Descension
Prog rock quartet Coheed and Cambria won back skeptics last year with the fantastic The Afterman: Ascension. With a firmly-established “classic” Coheed album in place, the band was freer to experiment on their follow-up, Descension, a record that runs the gamut from electro-ska to prog-metal to classic pop. Not every experiment quite works, but enough of it lands to make Descension one of the best releases of 2013.
Best tracks: “Key Entity Extraction V: Sentry the Defiant”, “Number City”, “Iron Fist”.
10. Cults – Static
Manhattan-based indie pop duo Cults settles into a comfortable groove on their sophomore release, Static. There’s a lot more guitar riffing this time around, like on the rock-out number “I Can Hardly Make You Mine.” But the band also gets funky, like on the jam-worthy “High Road.” I sense that this band’s future is bright, just like their poppy anthems.
Best tracks: “High Road”, “Were Before”, “We’ve Got It”.
9. Eisley – Currents
Eisley’s Currents took a while to grow on me. The band’s shift from bright indie rock to dark dream pop was jarring at first, but upon reflection, it felt like the next logical step in the band’s maturation. Most of the band’s members are married with kids now, so they’re no longer singing about heartache and young love, but about marriage and parenthood. Will the band’s next release be about settling down in a good school district and running errands in minivans? Time will tell.
Best tracks: “Currents”, “Blue Fish”, “Drink the Water”.
8. Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe
It’s been a great year for female artists. In fact, 30% of this list consists of acts with female singers, and there are more in the honourable mentions. But as the profile of female musicians increases in the industry, the backlash against them increases. Chvrches’ frontwoman, Lauren Mayberry, became the target of a great deal of online harassment recently. But she refused to take it lying down. She fought back. However, the real middle finger to her harassers came in the form of her band’s debut album’s success. The Bones of What You Believe is a critical darling, sitting in the best-of-2013 lists of male and female critics alike. It’s at #8 on this list, which I consider its greatest accomplishment. (Not really.) ’80s-inflected synthpop has never been this much fun or well crafted.
Best tracks: “Gun”, “Night Sky”, “By the Throat”.
7. Deltron 3030 – Event II
Thirteen years elapsed between hip hop supergroup Deltron 3030’s first album and their second. In that time, many rap acts aped Dan the Automator’s grandiose production, nerdcore gained in popularity, and underground hip hop became mainstream. Would Deltron 3030 be novel or even relevant in 2013? As it turns out, yes. Event II still sounds like nothing else out there, and Del the Funky Homosapien’s raps about economic inequality are more relevant than ever in a post-Occupy Wall Street world. Here’s hoping Deltron 3030 doesn’t let another thirteen years elapse before their next release.
Best tracks: “Pay the Price”, “Melding of the Minds”, “Talent Supercedes”.
6. Balance and Composure – The Things We Think We’re Missing
Balance and Composure’s shoegaze-inflected post-hardcore isn’t terribly unique, but they make it work all the same. Sometimes, a band can get by just by writing really good songs. The Things We Think We’re Missing succeeds mainly on the strength of its individual songs. Tracks like “Lost Your Name,” “Tiny Raindrop,” and “Reflection” sound as if they were written by a much older, more experienced band. But Balance and Composure is still young, and if they can improve from here, then we’re in for some fine music indeed.
Best tracks: “Tiny Raindrop”, “Reflection”, “Keepsake”.
5. Davenport Cabinet – Our Machine
Coheed and Cambria guitarist Travis Stever was a busy man this year, releasing an album with Coheed, as well as both a full-length and an extended play with his side project, Davenport Cabinet. I haven’t had a chance to listen to the EP yet, but if it’s as good as Davenport Cabinet’s sophomore record, Our Machine, then it’s going to be fantastic. Our Machine dives even deeper into the folksy classic rock that characterized Davenport Cabinet’s debut, Nostalgia in Stereo. There are bluesy guitar solos, softly strummed acoustic lines, and a pervading sense that this was just a really enjoyable album for Stever to make.
Best tracks: “Deterioration Road”, “Sister Savior”, “Drown it All”.
4. Local Natives – Hummingbird
Local Natives takes a less exuberant approach with their sophomore effort, Hummingbird, than they did on their debut, Gorilla Manor. When I reviewed Hummingbird, I said it sounded like a sunny day spent by the lake. It’s a pretty, relaxing record, and one that won’t soon be forgotten.
Best tracks: “Ceilings”, “Breakers”, “Mt. Washington”
3. Matthew Good – Arrows of Desire
For his sixth solo album, Matthew Good recorded something of a “greatest hits” of his solo career. The opening, title track of Arrows of Desire wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Vancouver. Headbanging rocker “We’re Long Gone” could have been on White Light Rock & Roll Review. Quasi-industrial slow-burner “Garden of Knives” might have been a Hospital Music song. As a result, Arrows of Desire doesn’t sound as much like a singular, coherent musical statement as his previous releases. But that’s fine: Matthew Good has earned the right to just release a regular album. And it’s a pretty damn great one, featuring some of the best songs of his career in “Via Dolorosa,” “Garden of Knives,” and “Guns of Carolina.” Good is getting on in years, but hopefully, he’s far from retirement.
Best tracks: “Via Dolorosa”, “Garden of Knives”, “Guns of Carolina”.
2. The Wonder Years – The Greatest Generation
I already went on at length about this album in my review. Suffice it to say that The Greatest Generation is a fantastic release and probably the best pop-punk record of the past few years. No band has better captured the anxiety of twentysomethings trying to grow up without forgetting where they came from.
Best tracks: “We Could Die Like This”, “The Bastards, The Vultures, The Wolves”, “I Just Want to Sell Out My Funeral”.
1. The Naked and Famous – In Rolling Waves
This album caught me completely by surprise. In fact, I discovered it only a few weeks ago after reading recommendations from a few friends. I previously knew of The Naked and Famous from their hit “Young Blood,” a slice of catchy nü-gaze, but I had neglected to get into them for reasons I’ll never understand. It turns out that In Rolling Waves is even better than their debut release, Passive Me, Aggressive You. The band’s synth-driven indie rock feels unique in this era of jangly guitars and “emo revival” (whatever the hell that is). But what really makes In Rolling Waves special is its variety. “Waltz” and “To Move With Purpose” are darker tracks, while “Rolling Waves” and “I Kill Giants” are brighter and sound as if they could have been influenced by recent U2. “What We Want” has a decidedly retro flavour. “Grow Old” is a slow, keyboard-driven track that builds up to a climax with heavy guitar distortion, while closing number “A Small Reunion” is a ballad with strings. All in all, In Rolling Waves is a phenomenal release and the best album of 2013.
Best tracks: “Waltz”, “What We Want”, “To Move With Purpose”.
- Bastille – Bad Blood
- Dance Gavin Dance – Acceptance Speech
- Earth, Wind & Fire – Now, Then & Forever
- HRVRD – From the Bird’s Cage
- Jimmy Eat World – Damage
- My Bloody Valentine – m b v
- Noah and the Whale – Heart of Nowhere
- Paramore – Paramore
- Power Glove – Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon soundtrack
- She & Him – Volume 3
- St. Lucia – When the Night
- The Boxer Rebellion – Promises. One of the most disappointing releases of my entire life. It’s depressing to hear a band that used to be so dynamic and energetic churn out a turd like this.
- Charli XCX – True Romance. Does someone want to explain the appeal of Charli XCX to me? Her music is terribly banal.
- The National – Trouble Will Find Me. I went back on forth on whether this was an honourable mention or a dishonourable mention. Trouble Will Find Me is by no means a bad album; it’s just a very, very stupid one. In the end, I settled on dishonourable. TWFM has a number of great tracks, like “Sea of Love” and “I Need My Girl,” but it has far too many boring ones, and the lyrics are atrocious (unless they’re just a huge joke, which they very well may be).
- Skylar Grey – Don’t Look Down. A terrible production job and a lack of memorable melodies make this one of 2013’s least essential releases.
So those are my top 20 albums of 2013, along with some honourable and dishonourable mentions. Is there a 2013 record you think I’d like? Recommend it to me in the comments.