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The 50 Best Albums of 2013

December 2, 2013  |  6:59am
The 50 Best Albums of 2013
10. Haim – Days Are Gone
Most of the talk about HAIM has little-to-nothing to do with Days Are Gone, the excellent collection of pop songs the three sisters put out this year. Instead, Este Haim’s SNL “bass face” and a slew of ill-conceived thinkpieces concerning their authenticity (they’re making their debut on a major label performing Wilson Phillips-style pop and yet they get accused of misrepresenting themselves and selling out…why? Because they look like they shop at Urban Outfitters?) dominate the conversation. But when you strip away all the blog chatter and just dig into Days Are Gone, the fact remains it’s an incredibly strong debut. “The Wire” is the obvious, undeniable hit with its Gary Glitter-esque drumbeat and Danielle Haim’s staccato vocals, but opener “Falling” and “Forever” form a potent 1-2 punch as well, and “Don’t Save Me” serves as an emotional centerpiece, as Haim pleads, “Take me back to the way that I was before, hungry for what was to come.” It’s a fitting lyric, considering all the undeserved backlash directed at these talented women. Can’t we all go back to the way we were before, just entranced by their earworm tunes?—Bonnie Stiernberg

9. El-P and Killer Mike – Run the Jewels
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Coming off the high of last year’s respective Cancer 4 Cure and R.A.P. Music, El-P and Killer Mike’s inaugural collaborative album as Run the Jewels catches the new duo on the high-end of an upswing, with their project seeming like a clever play on what smart people do while others are watching the throne. And the others can have the throne; El-P and Killer Mike are having too much fun to be stagnant and watch anything. Yes, a lot of the album is clever self-aggrandizing rhetoric, meant for “ohhhhhhh” reactions or just flat-out laughter, and yes, the beats are not elegant, most of them happy to be filthy and cheap and something that will make you move; leave the fancy production for those self-proclaimed kings and queens. Rather, Run the Jewels is a summer album made from a crafty use of a keyboard, melody lines and 808 beats, perfect for listening with a friend. And the album’s heavy moment, closer “A Christmas Fucking Miracle,” hits heavier because of the album that preceded it. It’s powerful in both delivery and in effect, without being heavy-handed or sacrificing form. Both rappers take the opportunity to show their longtime supporters that they were right all these years, that they bet on the right horses. And to those bandwagoners jumping on just now, pretty sure you are welcome, too.—Philip Cosores

8. CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe
If CHVRCHES are worshipping anywhere, it’s under the venerable Cardinal Gore and Archbishop Gahan. The softspoken swirls of chillwave aren’t really here at all, nor are the dancefloor theatrics of Daft Punk or other popular synthy masterminds. They draw inspiration from the great synthpop purveyors of yesteryear. This is music equal parts ethereality and definition. A further transcendence is suggested here, something synthesizer music has definitely had a knack for since the ‘80s in particular. But they’re also unafraid of letting every instrument bang like its percussion is its only meaning. It’s rhythm and blue-eyed wonder. No doubt everything here will have soaring synthesizers, decisive drumbeats and delicately stated vocals. But each song presents this trifecta in new variants, different tempos and plethoric dispositions. CHVRCHES’ main talent lies in making a record which makes the climb more worthwhile than the summit.—Mack Hayden

7. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
It’s been five years, three albums, an SNL appearance, countless festival performances and one lawsuit from an unwitting album-cover model since Vampire Weekend dropped its self-titled debut. Bucking several generations’ worth of received indie-rock wisdom, frontman Ezra Koenig had the temerity to borrow from Paul Simon circa Graceland instead of David Byrne circa Fear of Music, and the band soundtracked his songs with arrangements that were simultaneously inventive and fussy. On Modern Vampires of the City, Koenig not only appreciates Paul Simon’s naturalistic melodies, but understands that concrete details make the song. The songs benefit from the muscular backbone of bassist Chris Baio and drummer Chris Tomson, but this is Rostam Batmanglij’s album. The eccentric flourishes on a distressed pipe organ or a rambunctious piano give these songs their buoyancy and identity, making Vampire Weekend the weirdest and certainly the most idiosyncratic band to top the Billboard charts.—Stephen M. Deusner

6. Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Daze
When Kurt Vile sings his first line some 40 seconds into the first song on his new record, Wakin On A Pretty Daze, and when those lyrics are as clear and bright and crisp as the dawn that he describes, you know something is intrinsically different about this album. While his early releases were more a collage of loose ideas organized around a singular, murky sound, Daze presents 11 carefully composed tracks with beginnings, middles and ends. While he was always a contemplative songwriter, Vile’s lyrics are now more ponderous and worldly rather than navel-gazing. Themes of movement and escape are the bedrock of an album, providing a calming balance—lyrically, thematically, sonically. It closes exactly as it begins, with a long, winding, peaceful melody—one of the prettiest Vile has ever penned. “In the night when all hibernate, I stay awake, searching the deep, dark depths of my soul,” he says. He describes his process of finding that one moment, the “golden” tone. It’s a beautiful song about—what else—the nature of writing a beautiful song. Things are different now. His voice is in the foreground. He’s alert, aware. Awake.—John Hendrickson

5. Deerhunter – Monomania
No mere mid-career album, Monomania registers as an absolute impact event, a massive dirty blast marking the moment Deerhunter’s steady trajectory spins out of control. Somehow, throughout a ridiculously prolific decade, despite the shifting offshoots of lead singer/songwriter Bradford Cox’s satellite project Atlas Sound and guitarist Lockett Pundt’s developing solo career as Lotus Plaza, despite an evolving sonic foundation and lockstep critical aclaim, somehow Deerhunter have kept all their moving parts in sync. Monomania is wracked with longing and ultimatums and passive-aggression and aggressive-aggression and a monumentally shredding heartbreak. Little by little Cox deconstructs the pattern, pulling bits of identity from each side until he’s reduced to a complicated nothing, singing: “For a week I was weak/ I was down on my knees/ pray to God make it stop/ help me find some relief.”—Nathan Huffstutter

4. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady
An Ennio Morricone sonic vista opens The Electric Lady, the sequel to Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid, making its ambition obvious. With help from Prince on the churning song of rebellion “Givin Em What They Love,” Cindi Mayweather—Monae’s android alter-ego who’s slated for disassembly—proclaims love as something to fight on the soul/punk/funk émigré’s latest. Lady’s futuristic tableau is rooted in a terre firme earthiness that suggests deep ties to prog-funkers Sun Ra and P. Funk, as well as an incandescent grasp of groundbreaking forebears from Steve Wonder, lush Motown a la Diana Ross, Teddy Pendergrass smooth seduction to Niles Rodgers’ vibrant Chic-ness. Supple, the retro tilts modern on the 19-track epic that weaves spoken “radio breaks” with callers, promos and news about Mayweather for a 25th century immediacy. What could be unwieldy becomes a vast patchwork of influences buoying empowerment.—Holly Gleason

3. Foxygen – We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
Foxygen’s generous winks and nods to The Beatles and The Zombies and Bob Dylan and Lou Reed and David Bowie (… and I can go on) make for an engaging spin on the past with the necessary confidence and personality, and the right amount of TLC. What’s most impressive about 21st Century is that there’s nary a dud in the bunch, a difficult feat when it comes to making modern pop music that lives mostly in the past. Here, multi-instrumentalists Jonathan Rado and Sam France effectively trim the fat and gristle into a lean 35 minutes of succulent pop.21st Century also balances our post-apocalyptic present day with the past Rado and France hold so dear. The true litmus test is whether a modern take on the classics can hold your attention, or makes you immediately reach for your Transformer record. Foxygen wins.—Mark Lore

2. Mikal Cronin – MCII
Mikal Cronin is a creature of his environment—sunny, foggy, fickle, evocative. His sophomore release, MCII, is a nuanced collage of quintessentially “California” pop songs—or, at the very least, how the rest of the country perceives such songs to look and feel. He wears many hats over the course of the 10 tracks here. On “Peace Of Mind,” we meet an acoustic campfire strummer with the same sort of wet-behind-the-ears worldliness of American Beauty-era Bob Weir. On “Change,” Cronin becomes a sagging Dickies SoCal skate punk—maximum shred atop an out-of-the-box Guitar Center drone. Cronin is at once doe-eyed and contemplative, poppy and messy, inventive and derivative. He’s a seasoned musician who spent time in Ty Segall’s touring band, yet he has no qualms about utilizing elementary melodies to the best of their toe-tappery. And the record is better for it. But there remains just the right amount of depth to these summery sounds. Cronin’s lyrics, too, contain just the right amount of open-endedness. He asks questions that drift out into the ether and reappear as internal monologues—on a morning jog, during a shower, on a porch swing at twilight. And more often than not, as Cronin surely knows, these questions are more satisfying than their answers.—John Hendrickson

1. Phosphorescent – Muchacho
Muchacho aims big. Like the lacerating kiss-offs in Blood On The Tracks, Muchacho’s lyrics map continents of separation and wandering to represent the distance between ex-lovers. Like the panoramic scope of Joshua Tree, the album’s sonic textures capture wonder and immensity while keeping both bootheels on the ground. Like the benders and busts of Grievous Angel, Muchacho pursues both sin and absolution and offers apology for neither. And like Robbie Robertson in his solo debut, Matthew Houck—Phosphorescent’s sole proprietor—adapts contemporary tools and technology to blend troubadour folk, Nashville country and Southern rock into a sound that’s fully his own. Muchacho recapitulates the moment of love’s collapse and catapults out into the companionable lonesome that waits. The contours of the physical and emotional landscape are set by the monumental “Song For Zula”—windswept by the arid atmospherics of solo Daniel Lanois and solidifying around adamantine strings, the track cycles the storm-gathering grandeur of “With Or Without You” through the defiant heart of Dixie. Stepping into the rhetorical ring with no less formidable a pair than Mister and Missus Cash, Houck works with elements of sand and soil and gold and steam to cast love in some comprehensible form of relief. And damn if he doesn’t succeed—not simply by arranging loaded words in lyric order, but through the spectacular command of his cracked tenor. Once a fragile and ragged acquired-taste, Houck’s voice has shaped into an emphatic and tractile instrument; in “Song For Zula” he sings “I will not open myself up this way again” with a slightly bewildered wince of pain and then—six lines later—repeats the phrase with the subtlest shift in inflection as the revelation has already scarred into resignation. Though a lone individual comprises Phosphorescent, upwards of 20 musicians contributed to Muchacho’s capacious sound. Rogue fiddle, saused horns, lap steel, Big Pink piano—at this point it’s impossible to assign credit where credit’s due, but there’s no denying Houck’s talent as a studio mastermind, blending the efforts of his cohorts and players to alchemical effect. During the world-weary, self-aware ballad “Down To Go” an ex-lover needles Houck with the contention “Oh, you’ll spin this heartache into gold.” She seriously underestimates the man.—Nathan Huffstutter

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