We’re six months into 2013, and already the year has been kind to music fans. Every year at this point, we ask our staff and writers for a snapshot of their favorite albums so far. This is not meant to be a definitive list, but rather a way to compare notes, check out albums we might have missed and raise a mid-year glass to the musicians who’ve given us these records.
The Best Albums of 2013 (So Far), Selected by our Writers
Youth Lagoon – Wondrous Bughouse
From a fan’s perspective, a little uneasiness is natural when an artist decides to opt for a big-name producer and slick studio setting after cutting their debut at home with zero professional assistance or equipment. How instrumental was that lo-fi, DIY charm to their breakout’s appeal, and what happens when it’s stripped away in favor of a more dressed-up sound? In the case of Youth Lagoon’s Trevor Powers, the bigger budget only allowed him to communicate his vision with more clarity and connect with listeners on an even deeper and more emotional level. From lead single “Mute” to album closer “Daisyphobia,” Wondrous Bughouse tracks a dazzling journey through a galaxy of awe-inspiring soundscapes. It was an ambitious step for Powers, and one that couldn’t have been taken in a home studio in Idaho. Sometimes the more bells and whistles (in this case, literally) an artist has at their disposal the better.
Thao and the Get Down Stay Down – We The Common
When We The Common dropped, New York finally experienced snow. Upon leaving drinks with a friend, I started back home on the dark paths between warehouses. I cued “Every Body” to walk me home. Banjo stamped custom designs in the falling, glittery flakes. “Yes, we get naked / But not naked enough.” It wasn’t my neighborhood, but it used to be. I left in a hurry a year prior, away from the won ton factory’s oily haze. “Every body has a body above.” Away from personal toxicity. For the first time since I moved, the place didn’t taste sour. Synth buzzed like white noise. I felt calm. Kick drum quickened my pace. That ugly feeling was old, worn of power over me. “I’ve got a brand new / I’ve got a brand new / I’ve got a brand new / I’ve got a brand new way.”
Phosphorescent – Muchacho
While the 2013 hype-cycle has cranked on overdrive to promote failures of craft as successes of intention, Matthew Houck of Phosphorescent vastly expanded his sound without compromising a note. The violin-backed “Song For Zula” soars across the desert plains and scores all the handshakes on the talk show circuit, but Muchacho ultimately thrives on its narrative arc of defiance, ruin and renewal. From the lascivious, choogling groove of “Ride On/Right On” to the despairing nocturne “A New Anhedonia” to the hellfire torment of “The Quotidian Beasts,” Houck doesn’t flick out concepts or duck behind contradictions; instead, backed by flophouse piano and borracho horns, the songwriter pursues sin and redemption across throttled-out highways and fouled sheets, finally staggering free to greet the clear dawn sea. As the half-life of internet buzz degrades and other high-profile releases settle below their maker’s best work, Phosphorescent can stand badass country-proud behind the definitive record of his career.
Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer, Different Park
arrived with a bright, aggressively acoustic thrust, seemingly the turpentined answer to country’s bloated rock veneer. More importantly, she’s living in the now—singing about kissing girls, smoking dope, real pictures of suburban America (“Mama’s hooked on Mary Kaye, brother’s hooked on Mary Jane and Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down”)—and isn’t compelled to sensationalize, lament or cartoon the life of the Bottom 50 Percent. Her banjo-embroidered, little girl-voiced Trailer isn’t merely a breath of fresh air, it’s inciting a Grrrrlquake in the 6-1-5, and that may be the antidote to what plagues country radio.
Stephen M. Deusner
Ashley Monroe – Like a Rose
We’re only halfway through 2013 and already it’s been a great year for country music—more specifically, for female country singers who have a firm grasp of Nashville tradition and an open mind for its future. At the top of the pack is Ashley Monroe, whose second album—the follow-up to a criminally underpromoted 2007 debut—shows off her bittersweet vocals and her wry songwriting. Requesting weed instead of roses and admitting she’s too weeks late (with rent, among other things), the East Tennessee native and part-time Pistol Annie flaunts Nashville conventions gleefully, but she can sell a ballad like “Used” or “You Got Me” with incredible dignity and poise.
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
Like another contender for album of the year, Kanye West’s Yeezus, Vampire Weekend have also released an album tied to imagery and concepts from the Judeo-Christian tradition, and managed to top the charts with it. Unlike West, their album has served to end much of the controversy that surrounds them, rather than fan the flames. Critical knocks centering around “white privilege” have largely been silenced by Modern Vampires of the City, not because Vampire Weekend were ever concerned with these, but because the lyrics, the production, the arrangements and the songwriting are all so thoughtful, and even innovative, that they render such readings as inert. As one of the most popular bands in America, both in the mainstream and in the counterculture, it would be easy and financially beneficial to pander to audiences, but by challenging themselves and listeners, exemplified by the emotionally honest “Hannah Hunt,” Vampire Weekend show they can have their cake and eat it, too.
Kurt Vile – Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze
With each release, Kurt Vile demonstrates more mastery of American guitar music, and Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze is no exception. The real trick, though, is how effortless he makes it all sound. With his distracted-sounding, almost mumbled delivery, Vile masks the depth, humor and love that populate his songs. His latest collection, while packed with hooks, is not flashy—but it is roomy, confident and very pretty. That it’s accessible and versatile enough to soundtrack anything from a languid summer afternoon to a day wasted with a hangover to a dinner with friends is a testament to Vile’s skill as a songwriter. He’s spun the influences of such greats of his form as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Tom Petty to make a sound that, while distinctly his own, often manages to feel like an old favorite from the very first listen.
Queens of the Stone Age – ...Like Clockwork
Cynical me is (pleasantly) surprised by how many good releases there’ve been so far in 2013. Incredulous me is still trying to figure out how, after sifting through all of my highlights this year, I keep landing on this one. But Queens of the Stone Age went above and beyond my expectations with …Like Clockwork. Whether by choice or not, Josh Homme has one foot in the broader commercial realm of heavy rock and the other in his own rock and roll laboratory seeking out his own artistic vision. That just doesn’t happen in this day and age. …Like Clockwork is the Queens’ most ambitious work to date, traversing the desert where it all started while staring into the cold, dystopian future. As I said in my review: It’s got something for uppity rock snobs and downcast rock slobs.
Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement – Folklore Venom
Details are scarce regarding the nature of this ongoing project and its creator Dominick Fenrow’s intentions with it. But like walking into a dark basement or creeping into an abandoned house, there’s a delicious thrill in exploring the music within this cassette/digital release. These seven tracks come along like an enveloping fog, with creeping synth drones and minimalist rhythms burbling through the lo-fi murk. If you listen to only one piece from this strange masterpiece, allow me to suggest the gently rolling waves of sound that make up the 10-minute opener “Upside Down Left Eye.” The track evokes a shortwave radio transmission of an LP’s runout groove being broadcast into deep space; as if aliens found the Golden Record aboard the Voyager spacecraft and accidentally left it spinning on their turntable while they explored other parts of the galaxy.