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)
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