The Year in Review: The 50 Best Albums of 2013

Dec 30, 2013 7:00am
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                (Photo Credit: Kevin Winter, Christopher Polk, Paul Drinkwater/Getty Images)

So, 2013 is coming to a close and it’s time to take stock of the year musically. As with many other recent years, it is hard to say what 2013 actually sounded like. But with so many veteran acts making their return and newer groups reworking older sounds, the year almost had a feeling of living in the past.

Perhaps that summarizes the industry’s existential crisis in a nutshell. Influence, after all, is a game based on artistic recycling to some degree.

Regarding this list, I did my best to sum up what I thought were the best albums of the year, although there were plenty of albums I enjoyed this year that didn’t make the cut.

You might have heard some of these albums. Others, maybe you haven’t. In any case, I hope you enjoy these recommendations.

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(Photo credit: Amazon)

50. DAVID BOWIE – “THE NEXT DAY” (DELUXE EDITION)
After a decade-long hiatus, Bowie returns in top form with his collection, “The Next Day.” With its “Heroes”-aping cover, Bowie, no doubt, had the classics in mind, and album tracks such as “Valentine’s Day” and “I’d Rather Be High” deliver the goods. It’s an often dingy, thought-provoking collection with occasional pop edges. Bowie remains a legend while still being one of the few artists of his stature to be able to churn out vital material. As his career approaches the half-century mark, that is great to hear.

Favorite Tracks:
“Valentine’s Day”
“I’d Rather Be High”
“How Does The Grass Grow?”
“The Stars Are Out Tonight”
“So She” (Bonus Track)

49. CHILDISH GAMBINO – “BECAUSE THE INTERNET”
A few people still doubt Donald Glover’s hip-hop credibility but give him some credit. On his second major label record under the Gambino moniker, he sings a lot more and raps a lot less. When he drops a verse, it is rapid-fire and compelling as always, and as a vocalist, he has really blossomed. “Because the Internet” isn’t too far off tonally from both Kanye West’s “Yeezus” and Drake’s “Nothing Was The Same.” But Glover is more gifted and less of a self-conscious performer than both Drake and Kanye, so this album in the long run bests both those records. It might take a few listens to connect to this fascinating maze of a record, but it will be well worth the trip.

Favorite Tracks:
“I. Pink Toes” (featuring Jhene Aiko”
“V. 3005″
“I. The Worst Guys” (Featuring Chance The Rapper)
“II Shadows”
“II Earth: The Oldest Computer (The Last Night)” (Featuring Azealia Banks)

48. BIG DEAL – “JUNE GLOOM”
British indie-rock duo Big Deal could potentially get lost in the pile, but “June Gloom” is the kind of power-pop blending record that deserves your attention. Anchored by the harmonies of Alice Costelloe and Kacey Underwood, this album is somehow both warm and wistful. It builds, bursts stretches and burns, balancing beauty with a sense of volatility. Big Deal brings back to the forefront a raw, rock boom while also experimenting with lighter, dreamier elements.

Favorite Tracks:
“Teradactol”
“Dream Machines”
“Pristine”
“Golden Light”
“PG”

47. BRAIDS – “FLOURISH // PERISH”
Canadian band Braids second effort, “Flourish // Perish” is a lush, environmental set that should please fans of the Icelandic group Múm. There’s a dreamlike quality flowing across the album’s 10  tracks and vocalist Raphaelle Standelle-Preston possesses a haunting, almost Bjork-like quality as she sings across dense musical backdrops that sound like something from an elaborate movie score. This is the ultimate chill record of 2013.

Favorite Tracks:
“Ebben”
“Together”
“Freund”
“Victoria”
“Hossak”

46. THE WEEKND – “KISS LAND”
Abel Tesfaye continues where he left off on his “Trilogy,” on “Kiss Land.” Once again, the star is Tesfaye’s butter-soft Michael Jackson-esque croon. This is a dark record that finds its victories in mangled minimalism. Drum machines stutter away in the background while Tesfaye’s voice takes center stage. This is a lush, continuous collection of intriguing slow jams packed with menace.

Favorite Tracks:
“Belong To The World
“Love In The Sky”
“Adaptation”
“Kiss Land”

45. CUT COPY – “FREE YOUR MIND”
Australian dance-outfit Cut Copy lives in a world where the 80s dance floors never emptied and where Tony Wilson’s Manchester, England, club “The Hacienda” never closed. Playing much like a love letter to everyone from New Order to the Chemical Brothers, their fourth album, “Free Your Mind,” is a never-ceasing swirl of dance beats with psychedelic synth flares. Anchored by the centerpiece, “Meet Me In The House Of Love,” this is one of the most joyous rave records you will ever hear.

Favorite Tracks:
“Meet Me In The House Of Love”
“Walking In The Sky”
“Take Me Higher”
“We Are Explorers”

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(Photo credit: Amazon)

44. SARA BAREILLLES – “THE BLESSED UNREST”
“Brave” serves as the opening standout for this California singer-songwriter/pianist’s fourth album, a bold collection of smart radio pop waiting to be discovered. Other highlights include the very Fiona Apple-esque “Hercules” and the bouncy romp, “Little Black Dress.” Bareilles continues to distinguish herself among  the crowd by focusing on craft over flash.

Favorite Tracks:
“Brave”
“Hercules”
“1000 Times”
“Little Black Dress”
“I Choose You”

43. JAKE BUGG – “JAKE BUGG” / “SHANGRI LA”
In the United States, Jake Bugg released two albums in 2013. The first came in April, with his self-titled set of rockabilly numbers and folk workouts. The second set was the Rick Rubin-helmed “Shangri La,” which hit shelves just last month, showcasing a punkier, heavier, more sophisticated sound. Both records are quite different from each other and yet, at the same time, they both showcase a 19-year-old artist at the dawn of his greatness. He’s a throwback to a simpler time and to a streamlined version of rock and roll.

Favorite Tracks: (“Jake Bugg”)
“Lightning Bolt”
“Two Fingers”
“Seen It All”
“Taste It”
“Note To Self”

Favorite Tracks: “Shangri La”
“All Your Reasons”
“What Doesn’t Kill You”
“Slumville Sunrise”
“Kitchen Table”
“There’s A Beast And We All Feed It”

42. GHOSTFACE KILLAH & ADRIAN YOUNGE – “TWELVE REASONS TO DIE”
What do you get when you combine one of the Wu-Tang’s brightest MCs with a movie scorer and give them both a campy framework? You get musical gold. Ghostface Killah and Adrian Younge make an excellent pair and the pseudo-horror feel of “Twelve Reasons to Die” is played more up for its retro-cheeseball possibilities than to be truly scary. In other words, it just gives Ghost an excuse to drop some rhymes over some retro, dusty-sounding organs and some nifty harpsichords. Like any other Wu-associated record, this is not for novices and not for the easily offended, but if you are in on the joke and understand the context, this plays as one of Ghostface’s best solo records to date.

Favorite Tracks:
“Rise Of The Black Suits”
“Blood On The Cobblestones” (Featuring U-God and Inspectah Deck)
“The Sure Shot (Parts One & Two)”
“Beware Of The Stare”

41. BLACK SABBATH – “13″ (Deluxe Version)
Few people expected Black Sabbath’s first album in 35 years with Ozzy Osborne back in the lead position to be anything more than a rehash, but surprises come in big ways sometimes. The band members sound revitalized, bold and in the mood to really throw down. Against all odds, this is a classic Sabbath record on all counts. Even Ozzy sounds remarkably lucid and in top vocal form.

Favorite Tracks:
“Age Of Reason”
“End Of The Beginning”
“God Is Dead?”
“Damaged Soul”

40. FOUR TET “THE BEAUTIFUL REWIND” / “0181″
Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden essentially released two records this year, the spacey, jazzy, tightly-wound traditional record, “Beautiful Rewind,” and the archival, single-track, 38-minute DJ set, “0181.” Both play well and showcase different sides to Hebden’s work. “Beautiful Rewind” plays with tension and twisted soundscapes, while “0181″ plays like something looser, and more party-oriented. Both collections showcase Hebden as a talent and an increasingly, rightfully revered force in the electronic and remixing world. He’s an ace at his craft.

Favorite Tracks: (“Beautiful Rewind”)
“Parallel Jalebi”
“Kool FM”
“Unicorn”
“Your Body Feels”
“Aerial”

Favorite Tracks: “0181″
“0181″

39. THE MOUSE OUTFIT – “ESCAPE MUSIC”
Manchester’s The Mouse Outfit serves up some evidence that some hip-hop heads should look across the pond for some inspiration. With a setup that often sounds like a rootsy jazz band, the group is fronted by a rotating cast of MCs including Dr. Syntax, Sparkz, Dubbul O, Fox, Black Josh and more. You may not be able quite understand what Sparkz is saying as he goes full-throttle into some sort of cockney patois on the album stand-out, “Shak Out,” but it’ll definitely give you something new. This is the underground record you have been waiting for.

Favorite Tracks:
“Shak Out” (Featuring Sparkz)
“Escape Music” (Featuring Dr. Syntax, Sparkz and Kosine)
“It’s Gonna Be On” (Featuring Dr. Syntax and Sammy B Side)
“Know My Face” (Featuring Black Josh)
“Stay With Me” (Featuring Dr. Syntax)
“Air Max” (Featuring Black Josh)

38. ICEAGE – “YOU’RE NOTHING”
This is quite possibly the hardest, loudest most destructive record on the list. The young, Danish punks who make up Iceage have packed their music with an unrelenting brutality. In typical punk fashion, the whole display rips through in less than a half-hour’s time. When vocalist, Elias Bender Rønnenfelt goes from a moaning mumble to a scream, your walls will shake. Opener, “Ecstasy” seems wonderfully unhinged, while “In Haze” appears to be pieced together with a loosely-fitting classic rock guitar riff. This music is gloriously volatile.

Favorite Tracks:
“Ecstasy”
“Awake”
“In Haze”
“Burning Head”
“You’re Nothing”
“Wounded Hearts”

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(Photo credit: Amazon)

37. HAIM – “DAYS ARE GONE”
The Haim sisters live in a mall-centric, funked out, 80s revival world that owes equal allegiance to Madonna and late-period Fleetwood Mac. Their debut full-length is just as infectious in December as it was upon its September arrival. And there is great range to be found between the rumbling pool-side soundtrack of “Falling” the easy, breezy pop of “Honey & I” and the pseudo dub-step command-piece, “My Song 5.” It all makes for a very dynamic, compelling record.

Favorite Tracks:
“Falling”
“Honey & I”
“Don’t Save Me”
“The Wire”
“Forever”
“My Song 5″

36. BOOKER T. – “SOUND THE ALARM”
As leader of Stax’s house band, Booker T. & The MG’s, Booker T. Jones has cut his teeth in the past five decades making some of the best soul music known to man. He’s one of soul’s modern architects. “Sound The Alarm” isn’t quite the tour-de-force that Jones’ previous record, the Questlove-helmed “The Road To Memphis” was, but it is mighty close.

Favorite Tracks:
“Sound The Alarm” (Featuring Mayer Hawthorne)
“Fun”
“Austin Blues Idea” (Featuring Gary Clark Jr.)
“Can’t Wait” (Featuring Estelle)
“All Over The Place” (Featuring Luke James)

35. LAURA MVULA – “SING TO THE MOON”
A soulful graduate of the Birmingham Conservatoire, Laura Mvula’s debut album is an airy collection which puts her voice front and center while backing her up with unusually fresh sounding orchestration. Strangely, this album belongs equally in the pop, jazz and classical realms. “Sing to the Moon” is a warm, enveloping collection filled with nuance and style.

Favorite Tracks:
“Green Garden”
“She”
“Like Morning Dew”
“Sing To The Moon”
“Make Me Lovely”
“That’s Alright

34. WAVVES – “AFRAID OF HEIGHTS”
With each attempt at nineties revivalism, Wavves’ Nathan Williams gets better and better at recapturing the lightning in a bottle. If you miss fun, experimental grunge of Nirvana or even Marcy Playground, you should give “Demon To Lean On” or “Gimme A Knife” from Wavves’ album, “Afraid Of Heights” a listen. This album is continuing proof that there is an underground fuzz-rock revolution brewing, and one of these days soon, one of these garage-rock bands is going to cross-over in a big way.

Favorite Tracks:
“Demon To Lean On”
“Gimme A Knife”
“That’s On Me”
“Everything Is My Fault”
“Dog”
“Cop”

33. SHAD – “FLYING COLOURS”
Kenyan-Canadian rapper Shad is not as known in the United States as he should be. The man is quite a lyricist, whether he is rapping about the Rwandan genocide or the alienation of touring. Give his track, “Dreams” a listen and it is evident that this is the work of a true poet. If you are looking for real hip-hop with focus on lyrical skill, look no further than “Flying Colours.” If Shad isn’t on your radar, you need an adjustment.

Favorite Tracks:
“Dreams”
“He Say She Say”
“Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins)”
“Progress Progress (Part 1 American Pie, Part Two The Future Is Here)”
“Y’all Know Me”

32. CHARLES BRADLEY – “VICTIM OF LOVE”
Two years after his debut, the 65-year-old former James Brown-impersonator offers up a second helping of classically molded soul, reminiscent of the R&B of the 60s and early 70s. The truth is, we should have been made aware of Charles Bradley decades ago but at least now, Bradley is allowed to have a lifelong dream come true.

Favorite Tracks:
“Strictly Reserved For You”
“Hurricane”
“Victim Of Love”
“Where Do We Go From Here”
“Crying In The Chapel”

31. THE JOY FORMIDABLE – “WOLF’S LAW”
The future of melodic hard rock is here and it can be found in the Welsh trio, The Joy Formidable. Released in January, “Wolf’s Law” continues where their excellent debut, “The Big Roar” left off, building off of a keen combination of melody and layers of noise. This is feedback and screech-drenched power-pop of epic proportions. If any newer rock band has a chance of crossing over and making a huge, unexpected splash in the pop world, it is this one.

Favorite Tracks:
“Cholla”
“Maw Maw Song”
“The Leopard And The Lung”
“This Ladder Is Ours”
“Little Blimp”

30. JESSIE WARE – “DEVOTION” (U.S. VERSION)
I cheated on this one: “Devotion” was originally available before its official U.S. 2013 release as an international download through Jessie Ware’s British label in the summer of 2012. I listened to it then and I liked it, but it took until September of 2013 to realize its true greatness. The U.S. version differs only slightly from the original release, including a bonus remix of standout, “Wildest Moments” featuring a great verse from A$AP Rocky. Ware stands as one of the best British R&B vocalists working today, primed for an Adele-like crossover.

Favorite Tracks:
“Wildest Moments”
“Running”
Devotion”
“Something Inside”
“Imagine It Was Us”

29. (THE LONDON) SUEDE – “BLOODSPORTS”
Suede (or as they are known in the United States, “The London Suede)” released “Bloodsports” after an 11-year hiatus and it paid off. “Bloodsports” is a dynamic dose of Brit-rock power-pop, mammoth in its execution with tracks (“Snowblind” and “Barriers”) built for the arenas. They are purposely trying to announce their return in a big way and it is a very welcome return.

Favorite Tracks:
“Snowblind”
“Barriers”
“It Starts And Ends With You”
“Hit Me”
“Always”

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(Photo credit: Amazon)

28. TEGAN AND SARA – “HEARTTHROB” (DELUXE VERSION)
“Heartthrob” is the record where Tegan and Sara abandon their indie-rock past and go full-fledged pop. In the process, they got some new fans and I’m sure alienated some old ones, but the pop crossover was a very smart move. They’ve always written great pop songs, but now, production is brought up to make these songs shine. In the long run, this ends up being one of the smartest, boldest pop albums of 2013.

Favorite Tracks:
“Closer”
“I Was A Fool”
“Drove Me Wild”
“Now I’m All Messed Up”
“Goodbye Goodbye”

27. RACHEL ZEFFIRA – “THE DESERTERS”
Released in the United States  in March, vocalist Rachel Zeffira’s “The Deserters” is a swirling, hypnotic orchestral affair. Owing influence from everyone from David Lynch to Stereolab, this record keeps the listener spinning. Somehow, even on upbeat songs like “Here On In,” Zeffira still sounds at ease and mellow. That ambient film-noire detective movie you’ve quietly been working out in your head just found its soundtrack.

Favorite Tracks:
“The Deserters”
“Front Door”
“Silver City Days”
“Here On In”
“Star”

26. ATOMS FOR PEACE – “AMOK”
Atoms for Peace started as Thom Yorke’s way of giving his solo debut, “The Eraser,” a live voice. He recruited friends like Nigel Godrich, Joey Waronker and, most importantly, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Touring “The Eraser” cuts went so smashingly that the band decided to record “Amok,” their proper debut as a supergroup. The album plays like a funky diversion away from Radiohead. It’s a dizzying, workman-like collection finding Yorke exhibiting a playfulness absent from the last couple Radiohead releases.

Favorite Tracks:
“Default”
“Dropped”
“Reverse Running”
“Judge Jury And Executioner”
“Amok”

25. EVIL NEEDLE – “QUALIA”
Evil Needle is a French DJ/Producer who specializes in chilled atmospherics. “Qualia” is a silky record that for the most part plays like the instrumental version of the best record Drake has never made. This is subtle, alluring music for nocturnal swimming parties in infinity pools -  a stunningly satisfying record.

Favorite Tracks:
“Ascension”
“Floatin’ With Louise”
“Assembly”
“Good Times”
“Moodolude 05″
“Vibin’”

24. RUBY – “WAITING FOR LIGHT” / “REVERT TO TYPE” / “TYPE 2.0″
After an 11-year hiatus, Lesley Rankine resurrected the Ruby name and teamed up with her brother, Scott Firth. In February, they released the stunning, “Waiting For Light” single, which stands as one of the most enthralling singles of the year.  This summer, Rankine then released “Revert To Type,” consisting of three more new songs in regular and remixed form. Finally in November, she released “Type 2.0,” which was another EP of remixes. All together, it only adds up to four songs in various forms, but it is completely worth it. Rankine’s voice is one that was missing from the musical landscape for a too long. With these four tracks, she has returned triumphantly. More, please!

Favorite Tracks: “Waiting For Light”
“Waiting For Light”

Favorite Tracks: “Revert To Type”
“Fireweed”
“Lush”
“Last Life”

Favorite Tracks: “Type 2.0″
“Waiting For Light” (Akira Sunshin Mix)
“Fireweed” (Geek Boy Mix)

23. BEST COAST – “FADE AWAY”
At 27 minutes and seven songs, Best Coast’s third major release feels surprisingly more like a substantial album than an EP. Bethany Cosentino and her cohort Bobb Brunohas have grown considerably as songwriters. Still, Cosentino has never before written a song quite as densely powerful as “Who Have I Become?” Best Coast didn’t need to grow necessarily, but this shows surprising bounds in their output.

Favorite Tracks:
“Who Have I Become?”
“Fade Away”
“This Lonely Morning”

22. SONS OF THE SEA – “SONS OF THE SEA”
Instead of following up his 2010 album, “The Wild Trapeze” with another solo record under his own name, Incubus’ Brandon Boyd decided to recruit producer Brendan O’Brien and dub them both Sons Of The Sea. No, this album doesn’t rock as hardly as many of Boyd’s records with his other band, but in many ways this seems like a logical evolution from Incubus’ last record, the excellent but perhaps overlooked, “If Not Now, When?” Songs like opener, “Jet Black Crow” and “Untethered” sound like Incubus as their spaciest. With “Sons Of The Sea”, Brandon Boyd continues his musical journey in style.

Favorite Tracks:
“Jet Black Crow”
“Space And Time”
“Untethered”
“Avalanche”
“Where All The Songs Come From”

21. TRICKY – “FALSE IDOLS”
“False Idols” is Tricky’s best and most substantial album since 1996′s “Pre-Millennium Tension.” The trip-hop pioneer seems as if he’s awoken from a long slumber. The highlight is “Does It,” a dark bass-driven dirge built around a quote from the Ropes’ song, “Love Is A Chain Store.” Interestingly, “False Idols” is Tricky’s first independent release on his own label. In leaving “the system,” he has once again found himself.

Favorite Tracks:
“Does It”
“We Don’t Die”
“Nothing Matters”
“I’m Ready”
“Bonnie & Clyde”

20. BEADY EYE – “BE”
Beady Eye consists mainly of the final incarnation of Oasis, sans Noel Gallagher. For their second album, the band chose an unlikely collaborator in TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek, who ends up giving “Be” an extra kick. Sitek’s production here is the most straight-forward of either of the Gallagher Brothers’ career. This means that Liam is not drenched in as much reverb and echo as he was before, allowing a piece like “Soul Love” to really creep into your consciousness. “Be” not only delivers an excellent set of songs, but it delivers them in the best and most appealing way possible. Liam and company really stepped up, songwriting-wise, but Sitek ended up being the album’s MVP.

Favorite Tracks:
“Second Bite Of The Apple”
“Ballroom Figured”
“Soul Love”
“Face The Crowd”
“Iz Rite”

19. QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE – “…LIKE CLOCKWORK”
On the first Queens Of The Stone Age album since 2007, Josh Homme reunites with Dave Grohl who helped make 2002′s “Songs For The Deaf” a career-defining classic. There are more high-profile guests of “…Like Clockwork” than worth listing here in this limited space, but all that star-power ultimately pays off. Those expecting the album to rock exceedingly might be disappointed. While this is still every bit a rock record, the amps have been turned down slightly in comparisons to their earlier work. What it lacks in heft, it more than makes up for in substance. “Fairweather Friends,” for instance sounds like a cross between the late Beatles and Soundgarden, whereas “Smooth Sailing” is a humorous falsetto-filled funk-fest.

Favorite Tracks:
“I Sat By The Ocean ”
“Fairweather Friends”
“I Appear Missing”
“Smooth Sailing”

18. DEPECHE MODE – “DELTA MACHINE” (DELUXE EDITION)
Of the 80′s titans still standing, Depeche Mode seem like the most unlikely to tread new ground, and yet, “Delta Machine” is their strongest effort since 1997′s “Ultra.” Somehow, they have adopted a minimalist approach and it sounds strikingly of the moment and fresh. (Single “Heaven” is one of the strongest bits of gospel-blues they have ever produced.) They never sound bored. They never sound tired. It sounds like the work of a band revving up to make another series of epic statements. With any luck, Depeche Mode can continue issuing classics of this caliber. This is exactly the kind of album you want a veteran group to release. Depeche Mode’s future is bright!

Favorite Tracks:
“Secret To The End”
“My Little Universe”
“Happens All The Time” (Bonus disc track)
“Welcome To My World”
“Heaven”

17. NEKO CASE “THE WORSE THINGS GET, THE HARDER I FIGHT, THE HARDER I FIGHT, THE MORE I LOVE YOU”
Neko Case’s seventh solo album finds the alt-country singer exploring dark terrain from child abuse (“Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”) to gender politics (“Man”) to suburban boredom (“I’m From Nowhere”) all in her distinguished, textured croon. Case is one of the best country singers to emerge in the last 20 years. In a different time, she would’ve been a superstar. She’s also an ace writer who adds depth to her often brief character studies. The majority of the 15 tracks found on the deluxe version of the album hover at or below the 3-minute mark, but Case doesn’t need more time to paint a vivid picture. She’s a real artist.

Favorite Tracks:
“Ragtime”
“Man”
“Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”
“I’m From Nowhere”
“Bracing For Sunday”

16. VAMPIRE WEEKEND – “MODERN VAMPIRES IN THE CITY”
“Modern Vampires In The City” is Vampire Weekend’s best album. Their third record is a dense exploration full of harpsichords, pitch-shifted voices and grooves that drive themselves into your consciousness. There are passages of this record that are so well put together that they are downright composer-esque. It is almost as if they are crafting a score to their own Wes Anderson movie. Tracks like “Step” and “Hudson” in lesser hands could run the risk of being too precious, but they are so well assembled that you are just along for the ride. If you want an example of classic indie rock from 2013, this is it.

Favorite Tracks:
“Step”
“Don’t Lie”
“Unbelievers”
“Hudson”
“Finger Back”

15. SUPERCHUNK – “I HATE MUSIC”
As the flagship band of Merge Records, Superchunk have earned their stripes and their tenth album, “I Hate Music” further cements their strong power-pop pedigree. They may not be the most successful group sales-wise signed to the label they founded, but they are the label’s most important act. “Me & You & Jackie Matoo” clocks in at just an even two minutes, but it sticks with you. One gets the feeling that if Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance wanted to, this band would be headlining massive area tours. “FOH” is the kind of pop Superchunk does best. They make it seem so effortless, too!

Favorite Tracks:
“FOH”
“Breaking Down”
“Me & You & Jackie Matoo”
“Low F”
“Void”

14. JOHNNY MARR – “THE MESSENGER”
Morrissey may make the loudest stink, but don’t forget that the Smiths produced two great solo artists. On “The Messenger,” Johnny Marr releases his first outing under his own name in a decade and bests his last effort, “Boomslang,” ten-fold. The collection is angular and spiky when you consider straight-ahead pleasers like “Upstarts” and the title track. Also, Marr is a surprisingly commanding rock vocalist for someone who has spent the majority of the last 30 years as a sideman. This is an epic dose of Brit-rock from one of the genre’s most celebrated pros.

Favorite Tracks:
“Upstarts”
“Lockdown”
“The Messenger”
“Sun & Moon”
“New Town Velocity”

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(Photo credit: Amazon)

13. ELVIS COSTELLO & THE ROOTS – “WISE UP GHOST” (DELUXE EDITION)
An unlikely combination on paper, the pairing of Elvis Costello and the Roots is a resounding success. If you are expecting to find Black Thought’s verses mixed with Costello’s cryptic lyrics, you are out of luck. This is primarily a Costello record with the Roots serving as an extraordinarily funk-i-fied back-up band. “Walk Us Uptown” and “Stick Out Your Tongue” show new sides of Costello as he maneuvers around Questlove’s undeniable backbeat. This is in effect a modern tribute to the soul records of the past with Costello showing quite a bit of dexterity. He is, after all, one of rock’s greatest chameleons.

Favorite Tracks:
“Walk Us Uptown”
“Stick Out Your Tongue”
“Sugar Won’t Work”
“Wake Me Up”
“Tripwire”

12. MIDLAKE – “ANTIPHON”
Midlake’s fourth album, “Antiphon” is an earthy moody set-piece. It’s the kind of warmly enveloping record you want to get on vinyl and turn up to full-blast. The bass-lines throb life into these songs as the band works like a well-honed mini-orchestra. Fans of like-minded bands like Grizzly Bear should take notice. (There are also ghosts of the Moody Blues and Pink Floyd woven into the mix.) This is a timeless collection of tunes that will suck you in from start to finish.

Favorite Tracks:
“Antiphon”
“Vale”
“This Weight”
“It’s Going Down”
“The Old And The Young”

11. STEVE MASON – “MONKEY MINDS IN THE DEVIL’S TIME”
As the former lead singer of the Beta Band, Steve Mason is no stranger to critical love. To this day, “The Three E.P.s” is considered an unquestioned classic. In the movie “High Fidelity,” John Cusack’s character boasts that he can sell five copies of that record just by playing roughly thirty seconds of “Dry The Rain” in his record store. Beta Band fans should really be paying attention to Mason’s solo work as well. In many ways, it plays like a solid continuation of that work rather than a new start. Mason is a key experimentalist whose knack for tinkering remains as fresh as ever.

Favorite Tracks:
“Lonely”
“Lie Awake”
“Fire”
“Seen It All Before”
“Never Be Alone”
“Safe Population”

10. MY BLOODY VALENTINE – “m b v.”
Breaking a 22-year silence, My Bloody Valentine released “m b v” through their website in February. The response to the album’s release was so overwhelmingly favorable that their site promptly crashed. Fans of the shoegaze architects’ classic records like “Loveless” or “Isn’t Anything” should find plenty to be pleased with here. Notably, Kevin Shields’ approach hasn’t appeared to have changed one bit. He still sounds like he is whispering underneath a glorious orchestra of well-tuned vacuum cleaners. “m b v” stands as proof that sometimes, even after long gaps of time have passed, some bands can easily pick up right from where they left off. That notion brings a lasting sense of comfort.

Favorite Tracks:
“Only Tomorrow”
“Who Sees You”
“If I Am”
“She Found Now”
“Wonder 2″

9. CHVRCHES – “THE BONES OF WHAT YOU BELIEVE”
Eighties-pop influence is HUGE right now. Recent tracks by Haim, Phantogram, Cut Copy and Sky Ferreira all seem to be dropped straight from 1987. But nowhere is the eighties influence felt more on “The Bones Of What You Believe,” the full-length debut by the Scottish trio, Chvrches. This is a collection of some of the shiniest, catchiest synth-pop you are likely to ever hear, anchored by the singles, “The Mother That We Share” and “Recover.” Simply put, this is a tremendous pop record that will leave you smiling from ear-to-ear.

Favorite Tracks:
“Gun”
“The Mother That We Share”
“You Caught The Light”
“Recover”
“Lies”

8. THE JAMES HUNTER SIX – “MINUTE BY MINUTE”
James Hunter is a British singer-songwriter working a very retro-vibe. He sounds like an equal cross between Sam Cooke, Bobby Darin and Jackie Wilson. This album, his fifth, sounds like it is straight out of the mid-sixties in the best way possible. Standouts like the title track, “Chicken Switch” and “Heartbreak” sound like long-lost classics from a forgotten time. Subtle hints of ska and reggae add extra bits of flavor to the mix. Hunter’s skill as a writer and a performer equals that of his influences. He’s a true master of his craft and quite a showman.

Favorite Tracks:
“Minute By Minute”
“Heartbreak”
“Chicken Switch”
“One Way Love”
“Let The Monkey Ride.”

7. THROWING MUSES “PURGATORY / PARADISE”
After a ten year break, Kristin Hersh and Throwing Muses return in grand fashion with “Purgatory / Paradise. ” Interestingly, it wasn’t released by a record label. It was released by an imprint of Harper-Collins, showcasing an especially enormous book. It’s a strange move. And the track-list is even more striking. It has 32 tracks in 67 minutes. It’s safe to say that the band adds an unexpected classic to their catalog. If you loved the Muses’ previous records, this is a classic you will never forget.

Favorite Tracks:
“Slippershell”
“Morning Birds I”
“Speedbath”
“Sunray Venus”
“Terra Nova”

6. DELTRON 3030 – “EVENT II”
Guest-filled hip-hop concept albums don’t get much cooler than this. 13 years after originally joining forces, Del the Funky Homosapien Dan The Automator reunite once again for another dystopian, futuristic romp. This time they bring along guests as diverse as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zach de la Rocha, Mike Patton, Casual, Damon Albarn, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jamie Cullum and more. It all adds up to one of the funkiest, spaciest journeys of the year.

Favorite Tracks:
“The Return”
“The Agony” (Featuring Mary Elizabeth Winstead)
“What Is This Loneliness” (Featuring Casual and Damon Albarn)
“Melding Of Minds” (Featuring Zach de la Rocha)
“Do You Remember” (Featuring Jamie Cullum)
“City Rising From The Ashes” (Featuring Mike Patton)

5. SKY FERREIRA – “NIGHT TIME, MY TIME” / “NIGHT TIME, MY TIME B SIDES PART ONE”
Sky Ferreira grew up counting Michael Jackson as a family friend. This is usually the first thing anyone reads about her, as if to hypnotize us with the memory of the “King Of Pop.” What gets lost when such issues are discussed is the fact that her proper debut, “Night Time, My Time” is a dynamic and remarkable, experimental pop album. Ferreira doesn’t need the tabloid flash or the celebrity associations to succeed. When you can craft a ballad as strong as “I Blame Myself,” or can create something as wonderfully jarring as “Omanko” or “Nobody Asked Me (If I Was OK),” or you can craft a euphoric retro-gem like “You’re Not The One,” you don’t need such spectacle. This is a beautiful, oddball pop classic. Like and want more? The B-sides disc released roughly a month after the standard album also offers up some true keepers.

Favorite Tracks: “Night Time, My Time”
“You’re Not The One”
“I Blame Myself”
“Heavy Metal Heart”
“Omanko”
“Nobody Asked Me (If I Was OK)”
“24 Hours”

Favorite Tracks: “Night Time, My Time B Sides Part One”
“I Can’t Say No To Myself”
“Werewolf (I Like You)”

4. PAUL MCCARTNEY – “NEW” (DELUXE EDITION)
At 70, Paul McCartney has crafted what is perhaps his finest solo album to date. Pairing himself with four modern ace producers (Paul Epworth, Mark Ronson, Giles Martin and Ethan Johns), McCartney takes the opportunity play with newer technology. The end result is like a modern re-imagination of a late-period Beatles album. The collection has a spacey, driving undercurrent. If you can, pick up the deluxe edition, which features two bonus tracks. You’d swear George Harrison’s ghost was in the studio with Paul on “Turned Out.” “New” is a stunning sonic document and a true testament to McCartney’s apparently still blooming genius.

Favorite Tracks:
“Queenie Eye”
“New”
“Appreciate”
“Alligator”
“Road”
“Turned Out” (Deluxe Edition)

3. LORDE – “PURE HEROINE” / “THE LOVE CLUB E.P.”
Having just turned 17, Ella Yelich-O’Connor (AKA Lorde) is sophisticated way beyond her years. Her full-length album, “Pure Heroine,” isn’t your typical pop record, either. She specializes in bare-bones grooves stripped down to their minimalist essence and her voice is always front and center. One listen and it is not amazing that her smash “Royals” got to be one of the most successful singles of the year, even if it does sound strikingly different from everything else on the radio. Some artists are created. Some artists are born. Lorde was born.

Favorite Tracks: “Pure Heroine”
“Tennis Court”
“Team”
“Royals”
“Glory And Gore”
“Buzzcut Season”

Favorite Tracks: “The Love Club E.P.”
“Royals” (on both collections)
“Bravado”
“Biting Down”

2. NINE INCH NAILS – “HESITATION MARKS” (DELUXE EDITION) / HOW TO DESTROY ANGELS – “WELCOME OBLIVION”
The return of Nine Inch Nails is notable and with every successive release, Trent Reznor seems to improve his craft. Yes, some people are going to complain that “Everything” sounds too happy, but to me, that’s growth for Reznor. The New Order-like glee that encapsulates the track doesn’t lack the intensity of Reznor’s darker material.

How To Destroy Angels places Reznor with his wife, Mariqueen Maandig, and his frequent collaborator, Atticus Ross. Both the NIN and the HTDA albums seem to inhabit a minimalist, trip-hop world. The NIN record will be more likely to inspire you to break-dance than to head-bang. It is evident that Reznor and his cohorts have been listening to classic Massive Attack records. In any case, as time progresses, Reznor gets to be a more interesting and nuanced musical force.

Favorite Tracks: Nine Inch Nails – “Hesitation Marks” (Deluxe Edition)
“In Two”
“Copy Of A”
“Everything”
“All Time Low”
“While I’m Still Here”

Favorite Tracks: How To Destroy Angels – “Welcome Oblivion”
“Keep It Together”
“On The Wing”
“Ice Age”
“How Long?”
“Welcome Oblivion”

ht waxahatchee cover kab 131224 16x9 608 The Year in Review: The 50 Best Albums of 2013

(Photo credit: Amazon)

1. WAXAHATCHEE – “CERULEAN SALT” 
The one record I kept finding myself going back to more than any other in 2013 is “Cerulean Salt” by Waxahatchee. If you don’t know, Waxahatchee is essentially the one-woman recording project by singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield. “Cerulean Salt” sounds like a master-class in bedroom recording. Part fuzzy and part acoustic, it hits that perfect alt-rock sweet spot. Ghosts of Liz Phair’s “Exile In Guyville” and Elliott Smith’s “XO” ring throughout but, ultimately, it’s Crutchfield’s knack for crafting quick, highly effective songs that shines through. You’d be hard pressed to find a song as heart-stopping as “You’re Damaged,” and yet the song is just her voice and a guitar. Sometimes the most straight-forward approach is also the most effective.

Favorite Tracks:
“You’re Damaged”
“Misery Over Dispute”
“Brother Bryan”
“Dixie Cups And Jars”
“Coast To Coast”

What’s in store for 2014? It’s hard to say. I’m sure it will offer up a number of key surprises.

Happy New Year!

 

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