Lists

The 50 Best Albums Of 2013

Earlier this year, New York Times pop critic Jon Caramanica wrote a piece about pop’s Summer Of Smooth, about how many of this year’s big warm-weather crossover hits were soft and breezy and immaculately produced and comforting pieces of throwbacky, slick pseudo-R&B. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” drove the narrative, but it also encompassed Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake and Daft Punk and Drake. If you wanted to reach a bit, you could also extend the same story to indie rock. This is, after all, the year Ariel Rechtshaid became a smart-pop production baron by helming albums from Vampire Weekend and HAIM and Sky Ferreira and Charli XCX. It’s the year the National once again affirmed their calm, tasteful, wood-scented dominance. It’s the year that Phoenix inoffensively ascended to festival-headliner status, and that Disclosure crossed over to indie by goosing its dance music with high-stepping and laser-precise R&B hooks.

But it’s also the year a lot of other stuff happened. Even as Drake arguably became rap’s center, this was the year that its margins overflowed with scarily talented wiseacre noisemakers, MCs unafraid to yelp and snarl and yammer over backfiring 808s and slice-your-face synths. It’s the year old-timer processed-guitar monsters like Kevin Shields and Trent Reznor returned with guns-blazing, sounding better, once again, than we ever could’ve hoped. It’s the year superstar acts got weird and confrontational and maybe self-undermining, making some fascinating and sometimes great music along the way. And if it’s not the year metal got smart and tough, it sure as hell is the year metal stayed smart and tough.

If you’re looking at our list as an indicator of the Year Of Smooth, you’ll find plenty to support your hypothesis. There are plenty of clean and friendly and professional melodies contained therein, and many of the Summer Of Smooth movers are represented. But there’s even more rupture: Mavericks fighting against the flow of their genres and of music in general, making messily ambitious, noisy, sprawling, smoke-emitting monsters when many would’ve been happy to see them hit their marks and get out. Our #1 pick is top-shelf superstar self-sabotage, and its close runner-up is darkness-and-light sprawl that seems, in many ways, targeted toward annoying the genre faithful. Further down, you’ll find plenty that’s both agreeable and disagreeable: Synth-drone wizards, heartfelt ’90s-indie revivalists, spacey guitar noodlers, DIY shit-starters, two different A$AP Mob members.

The cast of writers who put this list together is quite different from last year’s rogue’s gallery. That means our list is as much a reflection of those changes as it is of the year itself, and it’s part of the reason you’ll now see a word like “Gorguts” on a list like this. But all those different enthusiasms — sometimes working together, sometimes flying on cross-currents — mean a diverse and passionate mess of opinions, and at least a couple of great albums that you almost certainly haven’t heard yet.

The countdown starts below.

50 Phosphorescent – Muchacho (Dead Oceans)


Let’s start things off with one of the most laid-back and easygoing records of the year. Muchacho is a remarkable thing, filled with twinkling piano, sunny synthesizers, and a rhythm section that always keeps things at a lazy-river pace. And that’s still only the surface layer. There’s so much exquisite instrumentation here that it must have taken considerable skill to make everything sound quite so relaxed. At the center of all this is Matthew Houck, whose cracked and charming voice, for all its wordplay, gave us one simple command in the first track that we were happy to obey: “Be easy.” –Miles [LISTEN]

49 Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience Pt. 1 (RCA)


From the first blast of swooning strings that introduces “Pusher Love Girl,” it’s clear that The 20/20 Experience is an old-fashioned kind of album: reverently mining classic sounds, defying attention deficits, celebrating that ancient virtue of comfortable, quiet monogamy. It’s great! And as you’d expect for music of this vintage, it gets better with age. Operating in a luxuriant pleasure zone courtesy of a revitalized Timbaland, grown-and-sexy JT showed us a few things about love. (Let’s just agree to forget the sequel ever happened, K?) –Chris [LISTEN]

48 Carcass – Surgical Steel (Nuclear Blast)


It’s nothing new at this point for a legend of yore to reemerge from the murk of ancient history and release an album of considerable artistic value. But Carcass’s first new album in 17 years came as a shock just the same. There were so many hurdles to clear: The band’s last album, 1996’s Swan Song, was a largely reviled work that has been disowned by the band. Their founding guitarist, Bill Steer, long ago declared himself done with metal, and went on to play generic blues-based rock with an outfit called Firebird, while their second guitarist, Mike Amott, quit Carcass prior to Swan Song to form melodic death metal pioneers Arch Enemy. Carcass’s founding drummer, Ken Owen, quit music entirely after suffering a brain hemorrhage in 1999. But after spending six years on the festival circuit, a reunited Carcass — built around Steer and bassist/vocalist Jeff Walker — went into the studio, dug up some old unused riffs, and produced, perhaps, the best album of their career. Surgical Steel operates as though Swan Song never existed, and instead, acts as the album the band should have released after 1993’s legit classic Heartwork. Surgical Steel sinks anthemic, indelible melodies deep into songs built of caustic elements — primarily Walker’s vocals and new drummer Dan Wilding’s ferocious, superhuman foot- and stick-work. Steer is the band’s euphonic center, and he’s never sounded better. Masterfully produced by Colin Richardson, much of the album feels European in style, the way the hard, pugilistic elements combine with sweeping melody. These songs could’ve been written 30 years ago — or at any time over the last 30 years — but their clarity, precision, and full-bodied sound are distinctly of the moment. –Michael [LISTEN]

47 A$AP Rocky – Long.Live.A$AP (ASAP Worldwide/Polo Grounds/RCA)


Remember this record? It leaked way back in December of 2012 and came out officially in January. Its purple hype cloud has long since dissipated, but it bangs artfully to this day. There’s so much more to Long.Live.A$AP than (the admittedly rad) “Fuckin’ Problems,” the one single that really soared at radio thanks to its all-star guests. Speaking of all-star guests, perhaps you recall the exhilarating mic-pass that is “1Train” or the giddy goofiness of the Skrillex-assisted “Wild For The Night” or Schoolboy Q going full giggity on “P.M.W.” Not that the album’s appeal is all about Rocky’s buddies; we’re talking about a gold-toothed Harlem rapper who, on the first track, sings in falsetto over guitar arpeggios like it’s Radiohead’s “Scatterbrain” up in here. At a time when almost every major label hip-hop debut suffers from cookie cutter syndrome, Dat Pretty Motherfucker made a record after his own heart that found its way into ours. –Chris [LISTEN]

46 Yo La Tengo – Fade (Matador)


Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley have been married to each other and making music together since before many of the artists on this list were born, and there’s an intuitive comfort to Yo La Tengo’s 13th proper studio album. Their voices curl up together like a middle-aged couple at the end of a long day, and Kaplan’s guitars swell up in the exact places where you know, and hope, they will. But that unforced ease doesn’t mean they’re stagnating. On Fade, they work with Chicago post-rock producer John McEntire for the first time, and the motorik spirals and impressionistic string-figures of songs like “Ohm” and “Before We Run” show a band still finding new ways to push itself. Fade is an unrelentingly pleasant album, sure, but in no way is it a boring one. –Tom [LISTEN]

45 Youth Lagoon – Wondrous Bughouse (Fat Possum)


We can now see how perfectly titled Youth Lagoon’s debut, Year Of Hibernation, was with the way Trevor Powers burst forth from his sonic chrysalis with this starry-eyed stunner. Not to say this was a happier record — songs like “Mute” and “Dropla” were struggling with anxiety more than ever, but with that came melodies and color previously only hinted at. Powers addressed his, and our, existential demons with a musical grandeur that imbued even our scarier thoughts with a sense of magic and wonder. Wondrous Bughouse indeed. –Miles [LISTEN]

44 A$AP Ferg – Trap Lord (ASAP Worldwide/Polo Grounds/RCA)


Trap Lord came out in the dog days of summer, but its spooky sonics are more befitting of Halloween. Fergenstein’s monster is a product of its time — if anybody embodies the internet rap sensibility of ominous fashion-minded trap music, it’s A$AP Mob — but like his pal Rocky, Ferg has an appreciation for his forebears. Hence formative influences Onyx, Bone Thugs, and B-Real share space with contemporary stars French Montana, Schoolboy Q, and Waka Flocka Flame. That kind of guest list belies the always-entertaining “All this shrimp and nobody to share it with!” skit, but the Hood Pope really is a man alone. No one else this year owned his aesthetic so fully or had more fun with such mournfully bleak music, setting his burly sing-song free to wreak havoc in a house of horrors. –Chris [LISTEN]

43 Cassie – RockaByeBaby (Bad Boy)


Cassie certainly doesn’t have the best voice in circa-2013 R&B, but she might have the coolest one: An icily direct and eerily composed sing-speak that carries volumes of insinuation with every precise enunciation. And on her mixtape RockaByeBaby, her first full-length in seven years, she knows just how to use that voice, hovering above gleaming electro-blips or snaking its way through tinkly minimal club music. RockaByeBaby has A-list guests — Rick Ross, Wiz Khalifa, Meek Mill — but they all disappear completely into Cassie’s chilly house-of-mirrors style. “I make music to numb your brain,” Cassie purrs on “Numb,” and she succeeds like no R&B singer since Aaliyah. –Tom [LISTEN]

42 Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety (LABEL)


It might seem like a trick the way Arthur Ashin pairs songs of incredible hurt and fear over ass-shaking jams like the ones found on his album Anxiety, but that title is hardly a misnomer. Ashin is someone expressing his deepest anxieties as best he can, by belting his vocals to the back room and wrapping them in maximalist R&B — the genre of music he listened to with his parents as he grew up, he told us in an interview. These are not typical R&B productions (how could they be with Dan Lopatin and Joel Ford helping in the studio?) but fractured, alien approaches to the sound, breaking down the tropes of this music while Ashin does the same lyrically, from the opening hysterical panic attack of “Play By Play” to closer “World War,” where the tranquil and beautiful coda feels like something that’s been fought for throughout the record. It’s what makes Anxiety one of the most cathartic albums you could hear this year in addition to one of the most danceable. It isn’t post-anything, it isn’t PBR&B, it’s genuine soul music for these terrifyingly modern times. –Miles [LISTEN]

41 Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady (Wondaland/Bad Boy)


It’s always the right time for an OutKast reunion, but I like to think The Electric Lady brought interest to a fever pitch. Janelle Monáe is a protege of theirs, after all, and she’s been traipsing through the same retro-futuristic funky wonderland they inhabited, as did the likes of Prince and George Clinton before them. But even if she wears her influences like they’re black-and-white formal wear, Monáe’s her own woman, and a fierce one at that. The Electric Lady is the sound of her grabbing music history by the balls, yanking it onto the dance floor and making it her bitch. –Chris [LISTEN]

40 Pharmakon – Abandon (Sacred Bones)


We were introduced to Margaret Chardiet via the most bloodcurdling scream on a record this year. It’s not theatrical, it’s not noticeably manipulated, it’s not done with the skill you get from metal singers — it’s simply recorded and uncomfortably raw. It sounds like something that was genuinely painful to make. It doesn’t go away either, the tail end of it hanging in the air, stretching into what becomes the opening drones of Abandon. Those five seconds are in miniature what you’ll find on Pharmakon’s volcanic debut. Composed with a surgical precision, but delivered with the heavy force of an abattoir knocker, Abandon is more than just one of the best albums of the year, it is a great service to noise music specifically. The entire album, and most notably the throbbing war march of “Crawling On Bruised Knees,” has the power to introduce newcomers to this world and remind old fans why they fell in love with the genre to begin with. Abandon will be remembered as a landmark in noise music, and we’re looking forward to to Chardiet’s next move. –Miles [LISTEN]

39 Pure Bathing Culture – Moon Tides (Memphis/Partisan)


Few albums this year were quite as luxurious as Moon Tides, right from those sparkling opening moments of “Pendulum.” It’s an album where ethereality is delicately woven with a grounded smoothness, all stargazing while floating in the water. It flows as naturally as the elements, making every dynamic shift feel right, peaking with “Scotty,” which hit “Time After Time” levels of slow-dance perfection, and riding it out to the closer “Temple Of The Moon,” which is just slightly colder, like the first brisk day in autumn. A special mention is merited by “Evergreener,” which musically and lyrically captures the childhood love of nature — and nature of love — that XTC perfected on Skylarking and remains near-impossible to replicate. But Pure Bathing Culture do that and more here, all while making it look as natural as a leaf flying in the breeze. –Miles [LISTEN]

38 The Knife – Shaking The Habitual (Rabid)


There’s something to the fact that the Knife and Scott Walker both released their defining records in 2006, shortly before disappearing from the spotlight. As on Walker’s 2012 outing, Bish Bosch, the Knife finally came back with a record that’s as likely to be deemed unlistenable as it is a work of genius. Even without the oblique lyrics and fascinating politics, Shaking The Habitual is a funhouse of an album, from manic tropical rushes like “Tooth For An Eye” and “Without You My Life Would Be Boring,” to the sparking circuit techno of “Full Of Fire” and “Networking.” It has to be reiterated, though, that even in their most experimental moments, the Knife don’t falter. The 20-minute dark, ambient abyss that makes up “Old Dreams” and the noise bombardment of “Fracking Fluid Injections” feel vital in context, while the rhythmless float of “A Cherry On Top” balances abstraction with one of the most emotional deliveries of the band’s career. Shaking The Habitual does exactly what its title pledges while positioning the Knife as current stars of experimental music. They’ve come a staggeringly long way, and, to think: Once upon a time we thought they were just a synth-pop band. –Miles [LISTEN]

37 Forest Swords – Engravings (Tri Angle)


There were darker albums this year, and there were groovier ones, but nothing juggled the two quite like Forest Swords’ long awaited debut album, Engravings. On four central foundations — murky drones, hip-hop-inflected beats, spiraling guitar riffs, and ghostly vocal samples — Matthew Barnes gave us the album that the Dagger Paths EP promised. The songs revolve around those core elements, but shift their focus constantly, like on the vocal séance in “Gathering,” or the lonesome guitar in “The Plumes.” The moments when Barnes hits us with all of his strengths at full force, like in “Thor’s Stone,” result in some of the most mysterious and hypnotic music of the year. It came out in the sweltering summer days of August, but slap on a pair of headphones and this thing chills you to the bone. –Miles [LISTEN]

36 Julia Holter – Loud City Song (Domino)


It’s appropriate that Loud City Song, Julia Holter’s third and best album in three years, opens with a song called “World,” as that is exactly what Holter creates for us throughout the course of the album. Starting with just her quiet voice floating in a vacuum of silence, she carefully puts all her pieces in place: the literary inspiration of Colette’s 1944 novella Gigi, her orchestral arrangements tuned up, and her layered voice at its best. It’s the most restrained song on the album, but immediately you can tell Loud City Song is the most exquisitely recorded album of Holter’s career. Holter’s voice transforms from song to song, as do her orchestrations. No two songs sound alike, but they all sound like Julia Holter, who in turn sounds like no one else. It’s a beautifully crafted and recorded piece of work, and for the first time it lives up to the grand and dreamy symphonies that always seemed to live in the artist’s head. –Miles [LISTEN]

35 Gorguts – Colored Sands (Season of Mist)


“Gorguts” was a terrible name when Luc Lemay chose it for his band in 1989, and nearly a quarter-century later, it’s demonstrably worse. It’s not just that it’s a goofy-ass, not-even-clever portmanteau/pun that brings to mind the very basest proclivities of death metal’s Fangoria fringe. It’s that — unlike, say, Cannibal Corpse or Autopsy (both better names than Gorguts, mind you) — Gorguts don’t even sort of cater to that fringe. They never really have, but in 2013, that name may as well qualify as false advertising. Colored Sands is the first Gorguts LP since 2001, their first since the suicide of drummer Steve McDonald in 2002, their first since Lemay reformed the band in 2008 with Dysrhythmia members Kevin Hufnagel and Colin Marston (the latter also of Krallice) on guitar and bass, respectively, and John Longstreth (Dim Mak, Origin) on drums. But don’t call it a comeback — call it a triumph. Honestly, even that feels like an understatement: Colored Sands is about as technically ambitious as metal gets, bringing together polyphonic, avant-grade insanity with rich strains of unexpected melody — all of it, alternately, in sky-blackening clouds of armor-piercing carbide shells and/or dreamlike expanses of spacious zen stillness. The Conservatory-trained Lemay is Gorguts’ chief composer, but his own vision allows for those of his bandmates to shine through, too: Much of Colored Sands feels like workshopped versions of the jazzy/proggy/math-y wizardry produced by Dysrhythmia or Krallice. But Lemay’s strong compositional gifts provide structure for his occasionally structure-averse co-workers, so that the astonishing instrumental mastery here services the songs, rather than the reverse. Colored Sands is especially notable for all its frankly beautiful cutaways and digressions, not least of which being the classical-style piece “The Battle Of Chamdo,” which Lemay wrote on piano for a string quartet. I assume “Gorguts” mashes up the words “gore” and “guts” to offer a new word that sort of sounds like — but is the diametric opposite of — “gorgeous.” But for Colored Sands, “gorgeous” would have been a whole lot closer to the truth. –Michael [LISTEN]

34 Yuck – Glow & Behold (Fat Possum)


Bill Simmons, the wildly popular ESPN columnist turned Grantland founder and TV personality, has long espoused the Ewing Theory, a concept invented by his pal Dave Cirilli in the ’90s. Cirilli noticed that the NBA’s New York Knicks (and the collegiate Georgetown Hoyas before them) played better when superstar center Patrick Ewing was injured; rather than propping his teams up, Ewing was holding them back. Simmons even applied this theory to the music world in a column earlier this year, citing New Order’s rise after Ian Curtis hung himself (“the most depressing Ewing Theory ever”) and Courtney Love’s career immediately after Kurt Cobain blew his brains out (“the second-most depressing example”). Here’s a less morbid example: When frontman Daniel Blumberg left the prodigious UK ’90s revivalists Yuck this year after just one album, everyone assumed the band would soldier on as a shadow of its former self. Instead, Yuck delivered Glow & Behold, a shimmering guitar opus that surpasses their debut in every way. It was — what’s the opposite of yuck? Mmmm? Glow & Behold made ‘em say mmmm. (Plus we got that rad Hebronix LP out of the divorce, so, win-win.) –Chris

33 The Field – Cupid’s Head (Kompakt)


Axel Willner’s career as the Field is like one mesmerizing fractal. Whether scanning over his entire discography of ambient techno, looking at the flow of a particular album, or focusing in on a single song, you see the same shape, with repetition and gradual evolution dominant at every scale. Yes, Cupid’s Head is a return to the same sound he perfected on his debut and continued on later albums, though with a subtly gloomier flavor. That chillier quality dominates in the acid house coda of “Black Sea” or the buzzing drones and vocal skips of “No. No…” but it’s also a record laced with unbearable beauty. The blurry closer “20 Seconds Of Affection” ends with hope, and “A Guided Tour,” one of the very best songs of Willner’s career, glows brightly in the center. Built of mantras as much as melodies, Cupid’s Head is pure joy in which to get lost. –Miles [LISTEN]

32 Iceage – You’re Nothing (Matador)


There are a lot of ways to open a record, but few of the albums on this list could match the insane one-two punch that Iceage deliver on You’re Nothing. “Ecstasy” jumps right into the dissonant punk that the Danish band delivered on their first album, and then exactly one minute in, the noise clears to reveal the ragged screamed chant of “PRESSURE.” Maybe this young band did feel a bit of that after all eyes were cast on them … it’s understandable when you’re the best new punk band to emerge in years. But pressure and stress are not always bad. Sometimes they’re essential natural responses, like a fever or the endorphin rush that comes from being genuinely frightened. A lot of bands could have succumbed to that stress, but as soon as “Coalition” hits, you know this group has taken that built-up pressure and released something explosive. From the warlike instrumental “Interlude,” through the crisp thrash of “In Haze,” to the violently heartfelt closing title track, and everything in between, Iceage keep their inferno burning, and the pressure building. –Miles [LISTEN]

31 Speedy Ortiz – Major Arcana (Carpark)


The now-exploding music scene that orbits Boston often feels like it’s made up of underdogs. These bands have produced so many songs about self-doubt, depression, and frustration that their inherent humor seems like a defense mechanism. But Speedy aren’t underdogs in the wake of their incredible debut; they’re champions. Champions to other bands and, in Sadie Dupuis’ razor-sharp poetry and painful imagery, to kids who feel bad about sitting alone at lunch or think for even a moment that they’d be better off dead. With hyperactive melodies and searing noise, Major Arcana could put a ton of crappy guidance counselors out of work. –Miles [LISTEN]

30 Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus 7 (Warp)


Exactly one year ago the Pope joined Twitter; two years before him it was the Dalai Lama. It’s a sign of the times, particularly of how completely un-detachable from technology we are. So people tweet @pontifex, and if you flip on TV you can find scientists discussing bizarre Rapture-esque scenarios like “the singularity” with a preacher’s zeal. It gives the idea of faith in technology a completely different context — a context that has allowed Daniel Lopatin to make one of the most spiritual pieces of art released this year. Oneohtrix Point Never examines this dichotomy by smashing and blending together the mangled remnants of everything from church hymns to infomercial Muzak. Opener “Boring Angel” lays it all out, pairing a church organ with a synth arpeggiator, and finds beauty in each before culminating in an overwhelming organ and choir crescendo. It’s a unique spirituality that Lopatin first tapped into on Eccojams Vol. 1, and drafted on Replica, but on R + 7 he’s made something transcendent. These 10 songs are beautiful, grotesque, wondrous, and never more appropriate-sounding than when he performed them at Our Lady Of Lebanon. As puzzling as the impossible equation in its title, R + 7 is Oneohtrix Point Never’s masterpiece. –Miles [LISTEN]

29 Phoenix – Bankrupt! (Glassnote/Atlantic)


Coming off their biggest album — and coming into a summer that included arena dates and a headlining spot at Coachella — Phoenix probably should have crafted a fifth album full of sing-along singles, or at least Cadillac-worthy jingles. Instead, they gave us Bankrupt!, 40 minutes of their loosest, airiest material to date — a full seven of which were dedicated to the album’s most inscrutable number: its Jan Hammer-eque title track. Bankrupt! is not a weird record, but it is the weirdest Phoenix record. It’s full of sublime, gossamer music, but even its lead single — opening track “Entertainment” — isn’t really a single; it’s an assortment of disparate fragments of songs cropped, cut-and-pasted together, and run through an Instagram filter or two. So goes the majority of Bankrupt!: These are deliciously sweet, richly textured songs that fill the space between the headphones with an intoxicating floral pungency, but melt away as quickly as a scoop of mint chip gelato spilled on a New Orleans sidewalk. I might venture to say these are the sleekest, smoothest contours Phoenix has ever produced, and even when that means gliding across them like raindrops along the hood of a freshly waxed SRX cruising comfortably at 75, with no hope of hanging on to anything at all, it’s still a sweet, sweet ride. –Michael [LISTEN]

28 Drake – Nothing Was The Same (Cash Money)


Drake wasn’t kidding about that ‘worst behavior’ business. Rap’s leading softie dropped the gentleman routine in 2013 and let the feelings flow all the way from passive aggression to their logical conclusion: an asshole on parade. (On record at least; Fallon appearances and Toronto Raptors commercials are another story entirely.) There’s nothing nice about Nothing Was The Same. Drake airs out his family, his mentors, and Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree. He pushes his opening track well past the point of reason just because he can. In its own way, this album is as vicious as the hardest street rap and as confrontational as Yeezus; it’s quite simply an hour and change of boasts, tantrums, and fits set to the crystalline sweep of Noah “40” Shebib’s continued sonic splendor. And that’s why those of us who put up with Drake do it, right? Musically, everybody on Team OVOXO was firing on all cylinders for this record, including our barely likable protagonist. Bonus track “All Me” is an even more preposterous creation myth than the meme-as-anthem “Started From The Bottom,” but did you catch those bars about the babysitter and the toilet paper? Could you possibly forget those hooks — or count them? “Hold On, We’re Going Home” revels in absurd creaminess; I laughed at it the first time I heard it, but by year’s end I’m applauding it without an iota of irony. So many others expertly evoked the sound of dusk: “Too Much,” “From Time,” “Connect.” Drake and his entourage have their aesthetic down pat. He’s the furthest thing from perfect, but in the year when “selfie” was added to the dictionary, Nothing Was The Same was just right. –Chris [LISTEN]

27 The National – Trouble Will Find Me (4AD)


“You should know me better than that.” Is there a knowing wink behind Matt Berninger’s mantra at the start of Trouble Will Find Me? The National’s identity is so entrenched at this point that we know exactly what to expect from Brooklyn’s foremost grown-ass indie rockers. “There’s a science to walking through windows without you,” and to writing National songs. But science has improved our lives immeasurably, and so does this band’s well-worn formula. Their music is the ultimate drinking buddy for life’s most melancholic moments, those times when you need a steady shoulder and not a ripped-up foundation. Not that Trouble Will Find Me is all morbid navel-gazing — “Sea Of Love”‘s relentless churn fulfills the “Mr. November” memorial rock climax quota. And, hey, if you insist on something out of the ordinary, how about Berninger calling himself “a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park”? –Chris [LISTEN]

26 Migos – YRN (Self-released)


The sounds and ideas on YRN — sproingy cheap synth melodies, cave-in-your-eardrum bass, candy-colored cartoon-thug sentiment — have been staples of Atlanta’s rap underground for many years, but we’ve rarely heard them with the sort of spirited glee that the young guys in Migos bring here. They bounce their voices off these cheap and ingratiating melodies with such goony energy and rhythmic inventiveness that you almost don’t notice that most of the songs are about selling drugs. And if old heads have trouble divining the appeal of, say, the drilling-into-your-brain “Versace” chorus, they should consider that the words-as-superballs beats-as-playground spirit is the same thing behind, say, Das-EFX’s Dead Serious. –Tom [LISTEN]

25 Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks (Polydor)


We always knew Nine Inch Nails would be back; Trent Reznor practically promised as much when he temporarily waved goodbye just four years ago. We just didn’t know they’d come back like this. On Hesitation Marks, Reznor and his crack handpicked team of collaborators (Lindsey Buckingham! Adrian Belew!) dig deep into the band’s old frustration-throb, but also into squiggly jackhammer-house and darkly forbidding synthpop and stiff-jointed funk and straight-up stadium rock. The resulting album captures all of Reznor’s old appeal and then finds a bunch of different new uses for it. It’s Reznor’s best album since The Fragile and the most profoundly satisfying return from an arena-bound legacy band in recent memory. –Tom [LISTEN]

24 Bill Callahan – Dream River (Drag City)


The only thing more unexpected this year than a new My Bloody Valentine record might have been the picture of Bill Callahan that came out with the announcement of Dream River. Was this master of depression and devastation actually smiling? Well, we were, too, after hearing the album. It’s one of the most lyrically expressive and gracefully orchestrated albums of Callahan’s lengthy career — all of which can be summed up by “Small Plane,” which lays bare his every fear and hope about love in a few gentle, perfect minutes. –Miles [LISTEN]

23 Deerhunter – Monomania (4AD)


Obsession is at the heart of Deerhunter’s sixth full-length album, Monomania. Indeed, it’s the very definition of the word (per Merriam-Webster: “1. mental illness especially when limited in expression to one idea or area of thought; 2: excessive concentration on a single object or idea”). And here, that obsession is focused on American rock music. As frontman Bradford Cox told Buzzfeed earlier this year, “The one thing I aspire to is to be a great American rock ‘n’ roll band … There’s just a lineage, and a history, and a respect for elders.” Monomania is a deliberately American-sounding record with distinctly American references: Dylan, Westerberg, Wilco, Tom Petty, Lou Reed, Sonic Youth, the Ramones, Cheap Trick, Big Star, the New York Dolls, the Stooges … all the way down to other latter-day American bands like Deerhunter, bands that have successfully synthesized countless seminal influences: Pavement, Spoon, Beck, the Strokes, the Dandy Warhols, Ween. It’s also very much a rock and roll album. Cox called it “a nocturnal garage record,” and “a very avant-garde rock & roll record.” He’s not wrong to add modifiers like “nocturnal” and “avant-garde,” but at its core, Monomania could be Deerhunter’s most traditional collection. Perhaps because of that, to some degree, it also sounds most immediately like a classic. –Michael [LISTEN]

22 Superchunk – I Hate Music (Merge)


Death becomes Superchunk. Who knew it’d take a meditation on mortality to bring out this seminal indie band’s liveliest record in years? I Hate Music finds the punchiest pop-rock band in North Carolina flailing, wailing, and trying whatever they can think of to make sense of loved ones disappearing from this Earth. In the process, Mac, Laura and company came up with some of the most electric music of their career, as charged with emotion as with melody. From the first startling lyric of “Overflows” (“Everything the dead don’t know/ Piles up like magazines, overflows”) to the final heartbroken hums of “What Can We Do,” I Hate Music is a master class in revelry about reverie. –Chris

21 Chvrches – The Bones Of What You Believe (Glassnote)


Here’s a chicken/egg question for you: Were the members of Scottish trio Chvrches unheralded pop masters before they ditched their guitars for synthesizers, or did the synths unlock that pop mastery in them for all to appreciate? (And let me tell you, I appreciated the hell out of Chvrches this year.) Whichever came first, the result is a dozen specimens of modern music at its most effervescent. The Bones Of What You Believe is one of those miraculous pop albums that seems effortless in hindsight but in reality was the product of slavish devotion to craft. If manifesting masterpieces on the level of “The Mother We Share” was this easy, everybody would do it — and we’d still probably be amazed at how weightless they makes us feel. –Chris [LISTEN]

20 Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe (Domino)


Dev Hynes has been kicking around the music-blog circuit, in various wildly disparate forms, for nearly a decade. But it wasn’t until last year that he proved himself a master sideman. As a songwriter and producer, he helped Solange and Sky Ferreira to new career highs and helped usher their best songs into being. This year, with Cupid Deluxe, he does the same for himself, creating a beautifully rippling smooth-pop soundscape that fits his voice, and his worldview, like a sequined glove. Dave Longstreth and Caroline Polachek and Despot and Skepta and Clams Casino and (especially) Samantha Urbani show up and do great work. But the main show is everything Hynes puts in: The slick post-disco rhythmic push-pull, the softly-glinting pianos, the incandescent layers of marimba. And then, hovering over all of it, Hynes’s shy and stuttery and seductive tenor purr, an empathic hiccup that makes the ideal vehicle to deliver these perfectly crafted little hooks. –Tom [LISTEN]

19 Tegan And Sara – Heartthrob (Warner Bros.)


Tegan & Sara have probably never made a bad album, but in 2013 — with six releases and a dozen years under their collective belt — they made their best album. Disagree? Sure, lots of people will. Some fans have an abiding fondness for the duo’s early indie-folk material; some prefer the electro-leaning eclecticism of their more recent work. But the Quin sisters’ decision to make a radio-ready synth-pop album this time around not only gave them a more colorful palette to work with, it provided the single best context for their unerring senses of melody and joyously lovesick lyrics. Of an entire catalog filled with breakup anthems, none is more compelling than Heartthrob advance track “Now I’m All Messed Up” … EXCEPT Heartthrob’s second single, “I Was A Fool.” And maybe Heartthrob’s third single, “Goodbye, Goodbye.” And while cinematic emo dolor is, as usual, Tegan & Sara’s primary subject, it’s not their only subject: Album opener and lead single “Closer” is a dancefloor banger with a libidinous emphasis on the bangin’; “I’m Not Your Hero” is an apologetic conversation with — if not an apology to — the young and/or queer fans who have put the band on a pedestal only to find them unworthy of worship. Aurally, everything here is bright and dynamic and almost sinfully delightful. When the sisters’ voices blend and blur, and the choruses hit their driving climaxes, it’s nearly Abba-esque in its perfection: endless layers of beat and bombast, melody and melancholy. –Michael [LISTEN]

18 Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap (Self-released)


On first listen, Chance The Rapper sounds annoying. A stark contrast from the grizzled seen-it-all mutterers who make up his Chicago-rap-teenager peer group, Chance is a yammerer, a nasal and nervous fast-talker beset with voice-cracks and jittery tics, a young man desperate for your attention. The key to Chance comes when you learn that his annoyance-factor is a huge part of his appeal. He’s an adolescent Kendrick Lamar, if someone tripled the sugar content in his cereal — a smart kid who just can’t wait to tell you all the stuff he’s been thinking about. And as a product of one of America’s most dangerous cities, his pathos has real stakes. On Acid Rap, his insights come fast and loose, as Chance jumps and skips and dives and plays hide-and-seek through a playground of airy, wide-open, sunkissed, jazz-dazzled instrumentals. Real nasty Twista verse on “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” too. –Tom [LISTEN]

17 Windhand – Soma (Relapse)


From Carcass to Deafheaven to Ghost B.C. to freaking Black Sabbath, most of 2013’s big-ticket metal albums were audacious affairs in one respect or another. But Soma, the sophomore album from Richmond, VA’s Windhand, came in like an Appalachian fog: quietly and without fanfare, yet wholly enveloping and magical. As “extreme” music goes, Soma largely refrains from actual extremes: Windhand’s churning stoner psychedelia rolls out at a relaxed pace, but compared to, say, the funeral doom of fellow Southerners Loss, it’s almost spritely. Singer Dorthia Cottrell is neither a grunter/growler nor a falsetto-armed belter; instead, her wan, multi-tracked wail stays in a solid middle range, where she’s able to play to her own strengths, giving these songs a melodic backbone of solid steel. And while Windhand make very, very heavy music, it’s never at the expense of songcraft; most of Soma would likely sound just as entrancing with no distortion, or reverb, or wall of Marshall stacks — as evidenced by “Evergreen,” the rustic, gentle-as-the-breeze, sad-as-a-funeral acoustic number at the center of the album. Soma may not operate on any of metal’s extremes, but that’s just as well — instead, Windhand find something far greater at the genre’s big, beating heart. –Michael [LISTEN]

16 Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt (Don Giovanni)


Cerulean Salt does not feel like an album that came into existence as a series of digital files in 2013. It feels like a dusty tape recovered from an old attic box, hand-labeled and covered in near-indecipherable scrawl, a relic of a past relationship or a postcard from harder times. It feels like a hand reaching out of the past to grab you, to hug you, to remind you of that old fragility that you once felt, that you probably still sometimes feel. Part of that is the music: A fuzzed-out but lighter-than-air strain of ’90s indie-pop with a singer whose luminous tone doesn’t keep her from conversational confessions. But Cerulean Salt isn’t retro in any of those obvious ways. Instead, it drips with that you’re-a-mess-and-so-am-I feeling that, for many of us, perfectly defined and encapsulated our early 20s. If you still remember that era vividly, a listen to the album feels like a spin through time. And if you’re in that era — or if you’re about to experience it — I can’t imagine what it must do to you. –Tom [LISTEN]

15 Kvelertak – Meir (Sony Music Scandinavia/Roadrunner)


Kvelertak is from Norway, and the sextet’s battering ram hard rock is tangentially related to black metal, but they have more in common with Andrew WK than Burzum. Whereas you might expect a Norwegian metal band to slaughter an animal on stage in some kind of occultic ceremony, Kvelertak’s Erlend Hjelvik starts concerts wearing a stuffed owl on his head for camp’s sake. (It’s a glorious sight.) At the point where you might expect a black metal song to dissolve into shapeless onslaught of blast beats, Kvelertak descends into a deep half-time Southern rock groove. (Call them Ljnjrd Skjnjrd?) When it’s time to party, they will party hard. But you don’t even have to witness one of Kvelertak’s Nordic rock ‘n’ roll ragers to know that. Just plunge headfirst into Meir’s raucous ruckus — a triumphant splay of multilayered melodic guitar carnage, searing belly howls, and devil horn hand gestures — and all will be revealed. –Chris [LISTEN]

14 Savages – Silence Yourself (Matador/Pop Noire)


Rock guitar riffs — or, at least, non-metal rock guitar riffs — were something of a lost art in 2013. Bands were more likely to use their guitars to waft, or twinkle, or channel fuzz-gods, than they were to find a combination of notes that stuck in your gut. But on their debut album, these severe British punks came with the motherfucking riffs: Edge-gone-feral clangs on “She Will,” sinuous East Bay Ray divebombs on “Husbands,” steroidal Bauhaus churns on “Waiting For A Sign.” They pulled out these riffs with absolute bloodthirsty precision, pairing them with a sense of bleak atmosphere and lyrical stridency and straight-faced menace, all of which fit together like puzzle pieces. Young bands, making debut albums, never have their shit together like this, but the Savages of Silence Yourself are an astonishingly complete package, a group of ladies who got their shit completely figured out before letting us hear anything. They’ve nailed their chosen aesthetic so completely, the first time out, that it’s hard to imagine where they’ll go from here. But then, they can write riffs like these, so you’d be a fool to count them out. –Tom [LISTEN]

13 Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze (Matador)


There’s stoner music, music that helps to deepen and expand and augment a preexisting high. And then there’s drug music, music that lights your synapses up and bends time and generally fogs your mind up the way a very pleasant drug would. Wakin On A Pretty Daze, with its wandering, drifting, slow-blooming guitar solos and its inwardly muttered contemplations, is drug music. And it’s drug music about being the sort of responsible upstanding parent who maybe doesn’t have time for actual drugs anymore, who just wants to nest up with his kids and shut the world out. Vile has grown more and more confident with his gifts since we first met him a few years ago, and here, he’s achieved a meandering, zoned-out, thoughtful nirvana state. Listen to it in the right mood and it’ll help you get there, too. –Tom [LISTEN]

12 Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels (Fool’s Gold)


Killer Mike and El-P: Fuckboys know the combination ain’t healthy, and the rest of us can only wonder at how unlikely and miraculous the whole thing is. Mike went from OutKast understudy to strip-club poet laureate to resident underground-Atlanta firebrand, whereas El saw the demise of his grassroots Def Jux jitter-rap empire just before he became a wizened uncle to New York’s resurgent indie-rap scene. And now the two are Violent Rap Friends, flexing their unexpected but genuine chemistry all over this clanking, buzzing, thunderous, enormously satisfying rappity-rap clinic. Now that I think about it, maybe the combination is healthy, at least to the non-fuckboy population. –Tom [LISTEN]

11 Volcano Choir – Repave (Jagjaguwar)


A rose by any other name is still a rose, and Bon Iver by any other name is still très bon. It doesn’t much matter with whom Justin Vernon is rocking so long as he keeps churning out top-shelf folk-rock with a post-rock scope — or making epic music in any genre, really. (Hi Kanye!) So Repave, Vernon’s second full-length alongside Wisconsin widescreen rockers Collections Of Colonies Of Bees, is every bit the big-skied wildnerness Bon Iver, Bon Iver was, and it sometimes approaches the beating-heart intimacy of For Emma, Forever Ago. It’s a neat bit of consistency for the Volcano Choir brand that the record accomplishes that blockbuster/arthouse combination while setting sail for the same boundless sonic frontier debut Unmap did, but again, what’s in a name? –Chris [LISTEN]

10 Arcade Fire – Reflektor (Merge)


From Reflektor’s grandest moments (like the opening title track and “Afterlife”) to its most heartbreaking (“It’s Never Over”) this is an album that aims to express every emotion and do it bigger than anyone else would dare. It’s a record where “Here Comes The Night Time” needs to have a second go-around on Disc 2, and where the final and most purely beautiful track, “Supersymmetry,” ends with a five-minute ambient comedown that’s unexpected, but in context, greatly appreciated. It’s the record that Arcade Fire didn’t need to risk making, but they did anyway and we’re lucky to have it. This is an album that sets a new milestone. From now on, we’re listening to a post-Reflektor Arcade Fire, and they’ve never been more exciting. –Miles [LISTEN]

09 Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (Columbia)


In 2013 pop music, the way forward was backward. Retro was the game, and Daft Punk were its champions. After conquering the festival circuit with their pyramid light show, the robots returned to stem the tide of the EDM revolution they helped create, opting against that boiling-kettle buildup and bass drop that’s so popular with the kids these days in favor of something ostensibly slicker, smarter, and more mature. They recruited the best collaborators (shout out to Noah Lennox!), stockpiled the best equipment, and rented out the most expensive recording studios, all in the name of reviving hi-fi disco at its most luxuriant and detail-obsessed. Their aims were arguably rockist and almost certainly elitist, but the results were as populist as it gets: their biggest radio hit, their best-selling LP, and the zeitgeist on their side once more. Nothing lucky about it. –Chris [LISTEN]

08 HAIM – Days Are Gone (Polydor)


The release of these three California sisters’ debut album catalyzed some internet handwringing about what does, or does not, count as “indie,” so let’s get this out of the way real quick: Two of these sisters were in a teenpop band — svengali’ed by Richard Marx, of all people — who had a song on the Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants soundtrack. There ain’t a damn thing indie about them. What they are is a smart, versatile, idiosyncratic, show-offy pop group, a band whose sense of songwriting adventure matches their considerable chops. And on their debut album, they bring Stevie Nicks float, Michael Jackson glide, and Debbie Gibson twinkle to the table, subsuming them all into the massive force of their collective personality. They’re not indie, but if they were, indie would be lucky to have them. –Tom [LISTEN]

07 Danny Brown – Old (Fool’s Gold)


Danny Brown pulls off a near-impossible trick here: A concept album about the numbing, desensitizing effects of partying all the time — the deeper darkness behind the hedonistic life — that still totally works as a party album. There’s an artful arc to this thing: A first half of deep head-nod rap about the horror and desperation of Danny’s early life, a second half of headlong cold-sweat dance-rap about Danny’s attempts to blitz that early life out of his head. It’s tough, intense stuff, but that toughness and intensity doesn’t compromise the simple rap joys of his frothing-hyena delivery or the breakneck pacing or Paul White’s small masterpiece of a “Lonely” beat. Old is an album that does the little things and the big things, that turns its thousand tiny euphorias into one huge, bleak tapestry. –Tom [LISTEN]

06 Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time (Capitol)


Everything really was embarrassing for Sky Ferreira at one point — five years of false starts, yeesh — but Night Time, My Time is a record she can be proud of for the rest of her life. There’s a fully realized persona at play, from the retro-futuristic pop-rock wonderland she built with Ariel Rechtshaid to the breathy narration about coping with personal and professional tumult and coming out on top. Let us count the treasures on this album: Consider the big-haired, stonewashed John Hughes excess of “24 Hours” and “You’re Not The One,” the digitized bass clatter of “Omanko” and “Heavy Metal Heart,” the tuneful bloodletting of “I Blame Myself” and “Nobody Asked Me (If I Was OK)” — and there’s a half-dozen more where those came from. (“Boys,” people!) This is the sound of a would-be pop star pulling herself out of a tailspin and laughing all the way to the arena. –Chris [LISTEN]

05 My Bloody Valentine – m b v (Self-released)


My Bloody Valentine spent more than two and a half years and hundreds of thousands of dollars recording their 1991 classic, Loveless — legendarily nearly bankrupting their label at the time, Creation Records — the result of Kevin Shields’ obsessive perfectionism. Still, no one could have expected it would take the band 22 years to complete a follow-up, and certainly no one could have expected that follow-up to arrive without fanfare on a Saturday night in February. And on the subject of expectations: While lots of us expected the album to be good, did any of us expect anything this good? Did any of us know what to expect at all? From its release to its cover art to its title, m b v appeared on the surface to be a shrinking, shy album — a reluctant entity that hoped to come and go unnoticed — but there was no chance of that: The only thing bigger than the occasion was the music. Like Loveless, m b v doesn’t sound like a worked-over project, edited and added-upon to achieve the specific vision of an exacting auteur; it sounds like the ocean floor or the yellow-red-gray clouds at sunset; it sounds like a life form that is itself the product of billions of years of evolution. Of course, nothing in My Bloody Valentine’s music sounds like what it sounded like when it entered this world: human voices, guitars, drums, are bent and reflected and refracted and filtered and magnified and mutilated, and what remains has more in common with abstract expressionism than what is commonly defined as pop music. Lots of bands have spent the last 22 years finding inspiration in Loveless and trying to steal those sounds, update them, own them. And some of those bands have done a pretty damn good job of it, too. But in 22 years, none of those bands made an album that sounds anything like m b v — and now that it’s here, m b v sounds like the only album that could ever have followed Loveless. And those 22 years sound like nothing at all. –Michael [LISTEN]

04 Disclosure – Settle (Cherrytree)


When you look at the tracklist of a debut album and see “feat.” after most of the song titles, that’s usually not a good sign — especially in dance music, where too many guests usually connote a mercenary hit-chasing desperation that can’t quite cover up a lack of personality on a producer’s part. But on Settle, the first album from the young fraternal British duo Disclosure, all the guest singers just make sense. The Lawrence brothers are sharp, intuitive collaborators, producers who know how to draw out Jessie Ware’s inner house diva or use the icy texture in Aluna Francis’ voice for all its worth. And in with its grand choruses, its percolating basslines, and its lush and complex syncopations, Settle isn’t just a great dance album; it’s a great pop album full of songs that bang hard enough to work as club anthems. –Tom [LISTEN]

03 Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City (XL)


Vampire Weekend has always been clever, but I never expected them to be deep. Yet here it is: The year’s most emotionally and sonically nuanced record, in which Ezra Koenig grapples resonantly with the impending demise of everyone he knows, the dwindling currency of youth, and What It All Means. Lyrically, Koenig is on his Nobel Prize shit — lacing his scenes with just enough detail to evoke the maximum emotional response but not so much that it handcuffs the imagination, gracefully confronting some of life’s scarier questions, never abandoning his penchant for canny cultural references. His meditations on death are embedded in a musical landscape that breathes and sparkles courtesy of Rostam Batmanglij, Ariel Rechtshaid and the gang, a series of immaculate concoctions that effortlessly bridge the symphonic and the synthetic. Together, they embraced and surpassed the prevailing sounds of modern pop while eviscerating its prevailing wisdom. The result was an instant classic LP that sealed Vampire Weekend’s legacy as one of the finest bands of their generation. As it turns out, the kids do stand a chance. –Chris [LISTEN]

02 Deafheaven – Sunbather (Deathwish)


It’s impossible to talk about Deafheaven’s 2013 without talking about the metal “scene”‘s consternation over the band — a feeling that was seemingly mutual, in many respects. Regardless of the San Francisco duo’s explanations or ostensible intentions, they had to know that a black metal album with a bright pink cover — and a title like Sunbather, no less — was going to be viewed by even casual observers as provocation. Furthermore, they were surely aware that allowing Apple to use that bright pink cover in images promoting the new iPhone 5 (reportedly an agreement on which the band signed off, but for which they received no financial compensation) would make Deafheaven an especially easy and public target for a subculture already wary of tourism and gentrification. For these decisions and others (such as the black leather riding gloves worn onstage by dapper frontman George Clarke during the Sunbather tour), Deafheaven might be viewed as either bold individualists refusing to be reined in by a suffocating dogma, or pandering opportunists cannily courting blogs and enraging purists — both of whom were sure to react quickly and loudly to each new development regarding the band — while also presenting to mainstream audiences a “palatable” version of black metal: taking a subgenre built on theistic Satanism and suicidal ideation (and worse), and making it softer and safer.

That was the Deafheaven conversation in 2013, and it was inescapable. It was also, however, a narrative construct that either ignored the music made by the band, or (at best) treated that music as a distant-secondary concern. But Sunbather, the album, feels like neither an act of brave defiance nor a crass attempt to soften sharp edges. It is, simply, an immersive and exhilarating work of art — huge swells of brilliant noise; crystalline pools of placid beauty — a breathtaking, transporting physical experience not unlike the one delivered by Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. In those respects it is a unique and hugely generous record. But that generosity, those thrills, are the result of painstaking attention to detail on the part of the album’s creators: Kerry McCoy’s melodic chord patterns and deft, richly textured guitar playing, which ranges from gentle to frantic to muscular; Daniel Tracy’s percussion, an instrument with the precision and power of a jet engine; Clarke’s whispery, expressive hiss, which delivers his unusually thoughtful lyrics with a careful ear toward rhythm and momentum; and Jack Shirley’s production, which captures the full scope of the band’s ambitions and abilities the way Ansel Adams captured mountain ranges — with massive scale and minute focus.

Of course, Sunbather is no more a black metal album than it is a post-rock album, and no more a post-rock album than it is a shoegaze album. It belongs to all of those genres equally, and to none of them, exactly. It is neither a revolution nor a betrayal. In 2013, the Deafheaven conversation got so loud that it largely drowned out the music. But all the talking precisely misses the point — Sunbather only works if you shut up and listen. –Michael [LISTEN]

01 Kanye West – Yeezus (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)


A few months before leaving this planet forever, in the final public act of his life, Lou Reed wrote some nice words about Kanye West’s Yeezus: “He keeps unbalancing you. He’ll pile on all this sound and then suddenly pull it away, all the way to complete silence, and then there’s a scream or a beautiful melody, right there in your face. That’s what I call a sucker punch.” Reed knew more than most about sucker punches, and there’s something cosmically appropriate about that final salute: One mercurial troublemaker saluting another on his way out the door.

And Yeezus is a sucker punch, a grand act of making them unlike you as soon as they like you. Here, we have one of the world’s biggest and most important pop stars making an album full of digital screeches and groans, of sex-fiend animosity, of deconstructed club music, of frustrated noise. All of it feels like a conscious rejection of anything anyone ever liked about him. You liked his soul-sampling mini-symphonies? He’s going to open the album with a sound like a malevolent Decaptacon’s death-rattle. You liked his approachable everyman humor? He’s going to tell you about the time he put his fist in her like the civil rights sign. You liked the way he moved backpack-rap values into the pop-rap orbit? He’s going to use a “Strange Fruit” sample to grouse about the tyranny of child support.

But upon closer inspection, Yeezus becomes very much the work of the old Kanye — just, in this case, an old Kanye who’s become fascinated with his own ability to streamline emotional electronic blurt-wails like prime Reznor. Everything great about him is here: The curatorial ear (those adrenal TNGHT horn-blats), the expectation-challenging disjunctions (Chief Keef and Justin Vernon on the same song), the self-conscious wit (the croissants line). And at the end of it all, there’s the vintage beauty of “Bound 2,” shining through like sun bursting through clouds, as simply and purely beautiful as the celesta on “Sunday Morning.” That’s what I call a sucker punch. –Tom [LISTEN]