The 50 Best Albums of 2013

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When we say, “The 50 Best Albums of the Year,” let me explain precisely what we mean: These are the albums that our 19 music writers and editors voted highest in our year-end poll. They weren’t the only albums we loved—a whopping 323 albums received votes—so surely some of your own favorites are missing (let us know in the comments). And while we admittedly skew towards indie-rock and singer/songwriters, there’s a good bit of hip-hop, country, soul and whatever you call The Haxan Cloak, as well. The purpose of this—and all our year-end lists—is to help you discover albums you may have missed or might want to give a second chance. There’s something about each of these records that moved us enough to want the rest of the world to know about it. Just think of us as those passionate kids who never grew up and still want to make you a mixed tape. Here are our 50 favorite albums of 2013:

50. Dr. Dog – B-Room
Dr. Dog  has been reliable for quite some time when it comes to churning out hook-filled albums, and B-Room is another win for the Philadelphia-based band. The psychedelic-folk feel that the group has come to be known for is present and accounted for with an apparent rejuvenated energy behind it. The songs are freer than past offerings, producing a sound much more acquainted to their dynamic live shows. Bassist Toby Leaman and guitarist Scott McMicken continue to trade off vocal duties throughout the album, but the songs play together a little more cohesively. Dr. Dog has succeeded at their most soulful record with catchy songs and smart lyrics that makes the shyest of feet move.—Alex Skidmore

49. Speedy Ortiz – Major Arcana
Those who throw out Speedy Ortiz’s stunning full-length debut Major Arcana as a quick taste of ’90s nostalgia aren’t listening hard enough. The band’s sound has been battered to death on paper after drawing comparisons to slack-rockers like Pavement or Liz Phair, but the wiry, loose influence of Stephen Malkmus is just a last-pick-pizza-slice sliver of Speedy Ortiz’s pie. Starting with last year’s great Sports EP, frontwoman Sadie Dupuis has become one of my new favorite writers out there, spitting wry, smart lines (“Tiger Tank,” “Plough”) between gut-punching, emotional friendship jams (“No Below”). The guitar play between Dupuis and Matt Robidoux is beyond clever, with each six-string player laying abstract framework that builds to a rumbling whole when bassist Darl Ferm and drummer Mike Falcone kick in. For a debut album, Major Arcana’s intended message rings loud and clear by way of ass-kicking guitars, thunderous rhythms and a promising new voice—that is, if you’re paying attention.—Tyler Kane

48. Frank Turner – Tape Deck Heart
Frank Turner, who once sang “music, it’s my substitute for love” (on “Substitute,” from 2008’s Love Ire & Song), now turns to music as not only his escape from the tribulations and fallout from heartbreak, but as a type of therapy session. On his fifth album, Turner expands on the brusque, urgent poetry he’d adopted from punk rock, turning to a style more in line with the contemporary folk-rock of Josh Ritter or Glen Hansard: candid, exposed and somber. This well-worn ground is new territory for Turner, and though he handles it his own way, it’s stepping away from the enthusiastic, invigorating and inspiring niche he’s carved out near the mantle occupied by the late, revered Joe Strummer and the restless elder statesman Billy Bragg.—Eric Swedlund

47. The Lone Bellow – The Lone Bellow
It’s hard to believe music rooted in tragedy can sweep listeners along with such potent exuberance, but Brooklyn’s The Lone Bellow creates a sweeping country rock that uses the three-part power harmonies of lead singer/writer Zach Williams, guitarist Brian Elmquist and mandolin player Kanene Pipkin to set Williams’ songs ablaze in emotion, passion and the moments where life is its most extreme. Working with producer Charlie Peacock, The Lone Bellow figured out a way to harness the acoustic-rock template being mined by Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers and The Civil Wars and add a sense of powerful vocal incandescence. If Fleetwood Mac shimmered more, rocked less and were organic without being raw, that might suggest the level of evocative language and romance The Lone Bellow exudes.—Holly Gleason

46. Eleanor Friedberger – Personal Record
On her 2011 debut, Eleanor Friedberger  dispelled the notion that she was only part of an experimental art-rock project; she showed that she was a gifted stand-alone songwriter who could craft a solid hook with the best of them. That same accessibility is in full force on her newest effort, Personal Record, which offers organic indie pop that keeps things light and loose. The gimmick here is that there is no gimmick. In a music scene that is increasingly populated by superfluous theatrics, decadent instrumentation, self-indulgent temperaments and fatuous methodologies, Personal Record is a breath of fresh air. It’s a light, breezy summer album with a surplus of hooks and pop-minded melodies. There is no mask or ego or charade for Friedberger to hide behind. Instead, she is content to lean on the strength of the songwriting and execution and production, content to let the songs speak for themselves. And the songs are strong enough to do just that.—Michael Danaher

45. Cayucas – Big Foot
Produced by Richard Swift, Big Foot is a pristine eight-song collection of indie-pop gems, all defined by the same glinting, California-in-the-summer nostalgia that seems to seep directly out of the album’s first track, “Cayucos,” and the town that inspired it. Just like much of the Central California coast, the album seems to lie suspended in an unassailable amber essence of summer. The buoyant tone is the product of lilting guitar lines, delicate chimes and dings, occasional chanting and yelping vocal harmonies and other vaguely tribal drum patterns and instrumentation. Most important, though, is Zach Yudin’s friendly, former-choir-boy voice and the imagery his lyrics evoke. It all transports listeners to another time and place, and because of how friendly Yudin’s voice is, it’s hard not to feel good about all that’s past—even if regret is involved.—Ryan Bort

44. Charles Bradley – Victim of Love
On No Time For Dreaming, Charles Bradley primarily addressed some of the societal issues of a country that had continually beaten him down (before he got his break, Bradley led a hard life, working odd jobs across the country, enduring a spell of homelessness and discovering his brother’s murdered body). But ever since Daptone head Gabriel Roth discovered him performing James Brown covers in a New York nightclub, all Bradley’s had to give is love. Part of what makes Bradley so appealing is how freely he opens himself up to his listeners. In every song on Victim of Love, he lays the entirety of his heart and soul out on the table, inviting the audience in to experience the highs and lows and all the overwhelming emotion right along with him. The album’s songs are uplifting and instill hope even when they touch on pain.—Ryan Bort

43. Earl Sweatshirt – Doris
Richard Wright’s existential left-turn The Outsider opens with the book of Dread, and the post-exile release by Odd Future’s odd man out creeps heavy with the stuff. The kid is crazy smart, by which I mean wicked smart, by which I mean he’s blessed with the type of superb intellect rappers used to shield behind alter-egos. That life makes you wonder. Earl’s got poetry in his blood and cuts to the veins of his own identity without the just foolin’ safety net of Doom or Lord Quas. The endless piano loop of “Chum” might say it all, rising marionette notes falling time and again into a melancholy let down, but Earl gets the last word in reflective slants and internal rhyme. A joke stuck in his throat and up to his neck in the medicine cabinet, Sweatshirt stares through a grimy bedroom window while the instrumental “523” staggers like a pilled-out echo of Wu Tang’s “Tearz.” But because this is Earl’s wildly intertextual life, he wades out of that eggy pharmacetical wooze and passes the mic to the the real RZA. “I’m fucking famous if you forgot,” says Earl, his words doubled with irony, truth, and loads of outsider dread.—Nathan Huffstutter

42. Cass McCombs – Big Wheel & Others
Contradictions haunt Big Wheel & Others—or, maybe they enliven it. An ambitious and imposing double album composed of careful sidelong glances. Brash genre exercises defined by subtle craftmanship. Loose and groovy, dark and druggy, sensual and goofy moods and lives pass through Big Wheel, but McCombs never settles for simply passing through, rolling up his sleeves and investing each portrait with his own fusion of empathy and irony. “Morning Star” may live on as McCombs’ signature song, a sparkling tall-boy shuffle that glides from the hips to the imagination. Or maybe the casino jazz of “It Means A Lot To Know You Care” truly stands as that definitive track, a confounding detour that dangles some fleeting meaning just out of reach. Or maybe it’s the contrasting versions of “Brighter,” McCombs allowing his competent take to be upstaged by a show-stopping guest turn by the late Karen Black. Or maybe McCombs’ genius will always be found in those oppositions, potent collisions that allow the geography of Big Wheel to rise well above the surface.—Nathan Huffstutter

41. Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse
On its fourth studio album and first major label release, Scottish quintet Frightened Rabbit offers 12 tracks that are much closer to a rock record—and more complete—than ever before. Lyrically, Scott Hutchinson holds nothing back on Pedestrian Verse. His self-deprecating cynicism pervades the record, as the first falsetto-laden words offered are “I am a dickhead in the kitchen.” “State Hospital” captures the essence of the band’s past and present, both musically and sentimentally. “Nitrous Gas” is a lovely minimalistic ballad, and closer “Oil Slick” is driven by rolling snare hits and sliding guitar riffs.—Hillary Saunders

40. The Haxan Cloak – Excavation
In an interview earlier this year, Bobby Krlic, the UK-based mastermind behind The Haxan Cloak, said that when he was studying drone music in university, he “started to realize the very real potential and power of the actual physical properties of sound.” That kind of mindset gives Excavation, his second album of dark electronics, such weight and dynamism: You actually feel the presence of this album on your person as you listen. Beats do provide the backbone, but they are quickly bent and strained under massive surges of low rumble and bass hits that aim for your lower intestines. Underpinning it all are some delicate touches: the string samples that anchor “Dieu,” feathery synth figures that snake through “The Drop” and plenty of open space that offers up a quick lungful of air before the next resounding assault.—Robert Ham

39. of Montreal – lousy with sylvianbriar
Lousy with Sylvianbriar is steeped ankle-deep with Barnes’ academic non sequiturs, which swirl like psychotropic babble into and around a brook of warm, nostalgic rock tunes in perhaps the most organic recording of Barnes’ career. Fleeing to San Francisco, recruiting new players and eschewing the borderless sonic property afforded with multi-take computer recordings, Barnes endeavored to lay songs down in his home studio on a 24-track without computers. The result, really, is a stunning re-imagining of Barnes’ songwriting prowess suddenly peeking out from behind the folds of a thick curtain of beats and keyboards. Whether exposing light or dark, or some blank hue in the middle, Barnes has all but bulls-eyed his status as a brilliantly daring artist on Lousy.—Ryan J. Prado

38. Danny Brown – Old
It’s funny that Danny Brown has named his first proper album Old. The follow-up to the free download XXX, Old dispels the shallow views of Brown and paints the rapper in a humanizing and relatable way, with enough bangers and one-liners to not bury the appeal of his personality. More than ever, Old allows even passive listeners to care about what Brown is saying, to form a bond with him and to trust there is more of interest to him than women and drugs. Making it through the captivating labyrinth of Brown’s childhood and journey to the microphone, the listener is rewarded with straight club-ready party jams acting as an over-the-top adrenaline shot meant to cause smiles as big as Brown’s. With collaborations featuring Purity Ring and Charli XCX, lyrical nods to The Bends, and a persona that isn’t feigned tough-guy, the often-hilarious Brown has wound up producing an album that transcends much of the typical hype bullshit and seems destined to stand as a unifying record.—Philip Cosores

37. Typhoon – White Lighter
Recorded on the sprawling Pendarvis Farm, about half an hour outside the band’s hometown, White Lighter takes the utopian aesthetic of its locale and translates it into music. The band’s comparatively enormous size—marked by a horn section, string section and eclectic percussion—naturally exudes a boisterous optimism and familial charm. However, that same positive music also seems to mask the dystopian themes of the record. Death is all over White Lighter, and it’s that combination that makes White Lighter so entrancing, serving as both warning and celebration of mortality.—Hilary Saunders

36. Lorde – Pure Heroine
A 16-year old girl not looking to twerk, whine or sugarshock? Meet Ella Yelich-O’Connor, who emerges as a distaff Holden Caulfield, by employing a sangfroid that punches through an acquisitional society which measures worth by a flauntatiousness divorced from meaning. “Royals,” the summer’s surprise lo-fi trance-ish alternative No. 1, finds Lorde ironically checking rap/video staples. She merges Lana Del Ray’s flat affect, Queen-evoking curtains of disembodied vocals and Massive Attack’s electronica over an anything but fizzy electro-pop. Superficiality falls beneath her razor-scrawled lyrics, which skewer the sexualization of violence (“Glory and Gore”), the willfully blissfully unaware (“Buzzcut Season”) and the unattainability/desirability of faux perfection (“White Teeth Teens”). For Lorde, youth is both the ultimate revenge and burden. To know so much, to feel so little and to embrace what is, she illuminates being young, gifted and bored with a luminescence that suggests life beyond Louis Vuitton.—Holly Gleason

35. Youth Lagoon – Wondrous Bughouse
Youth Lagoon’s Trevor Powers snuck onto the scene a year and a half ago, a quiet but brilliantly talented composer. But his sophomore record, Wondrous Bughouse, is not the timid work of a younger man. It’s full-frontal pop music with abrupt transitions and dramatic breakdowns. This is the soundtrack to an anxiety attack. Powers alternates between personalities throughout. Moments of chaos and panic intermix with eerie calm and occasional joy. It’s a journey through the human mind. Most every track makes some reference to death, the afterlife, murder, sickness or illness. Even the title itself is a reference to mental institutions. But the album is not a heavy listen. If you aren’t paying attention, it comes across as seamless pop record and could even accompany a nice, cheerful summer drive. Powers has turned “bedroom pop” into a visceral and emotional experience.—Andrea Kszystyniak

34. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name
Pusha T’s raps are ardent. Each bar has the ferociousness of a lion smelling the scent of fresh blood. “King Push,” My Name Is My Name’s first track, finds Pusha T expressing this sentiment with his opening statements, “This is my time, this is my hour, this is my pain, this is my name, this is my power.” It’s an indicator that Pusha T’s long-awaited debut solo LP will be packed with bravado that he backs up with slick wordplay and surreal depictions of his drug-dealing past. Among his contemporaries, Pusha T is the sharp-witted wordsmith who makes you feel like you’re listening to a master at work, devilishly cooking up something as pure and addictive as he possibly can.—H. Drew Blackburn

33. Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety
Try letting a breakout album ride on an unreal voice that’s been kept trapped in a closet. In all the best ways, Autre Ne Veut’s self-titled debut sounded like a Culture Club tape that had been left sitting on a hot dashboard for the entire summer. For the subsequent Body EP, Arthur Ashin teased his vocals out of the warp and water damage, but his performance still remained elusive and restrained. Anxiety? Try putting out an album that renders its lone maker as emotionally bare as Plastic Ono Band or I Am A Bird Now. Ashin doesn’t speak or merely sing his words—barbed in bladed desperation, Ashin wields a falsetto that would make “Let’s Stay Together” sound like a sketchy proposition.—Nathan Huffstutter

32. Rhye – Woman
Woman isn’t overt by any means, yet it knows exactly what it’s doing. It’s the coy glances, bold smirks and grazing of fingertips along tender flesh. The debut album from Rhye, a collaboration between Mike Milosh and Robin Hannibal, is a masterful illustration of sensuality and intimacy. Milosh’s Sade-saluting ambrosial vocals and sincere lyrics make these easy tasks to accomplish. But, as Hannibal’s production permutates from song to song, from soft ostinato piano licks and crescendoing violins (“The Fall”) into hyper funky horn blasting (“Last Dance”) into bare bones minimalism (“Verse”) we’re drawn into Rhye’s world of a carnal appetite for love and lust. At times Rhye lucidly swaps a red light for a disco ball or a potential shouting match and the eventual make-up. Rhye strays far away from the conventions of contemporary R&B and in doing so, with earnestness, make an album that’s as sexy as it is romantic.—H. Drew Blackburn

31. King Khan & The Shrines – Idle No More
Arish “King” Khan has been playing with nine-piece band the Shrines since moving to Germany in 1999. He’s traveled the world serving up his stew of punk, psych and soul by way of outlandish, antic-laden stage shows. Six years have passed since King Khan’s last full-length, but he still packs the same energy, funk and backyard debauchery vibes. Idle No More is heavy on horns, soulful grooves and fuzzed-out guitar. It’s occasionally tender, too. “Darkness” showcases Khan’s sizzling, sooty vocals. Gunsmoke guitar hovers over ivory ripples. The track shines a light on Khan’s mental waves, marinating in the sinful stuff floating in all our bodies.—Beca Grimm

30. Local Natives – Hummingbird
On “You & I,” the opening song of Local Natives’ sophomore LP Hummingbird, Kelcey Ayer’s initial vocals flap and flutter on delivery, stretching out the song’s title like a clumsy inaugural flight. The moment deviates from the band’s previous offering, the critical and commercial mini-hit Gorilla Manor, exchanging trademark harmonies for Ayer’s lonely cry, a lunge for the apex of his vocal range that lands gripping the ledge by his fingertips, every quiver and imperfection magnified by its naked presentation. When the chorus arrives, his aching falsetto is comforted by his bandmates, but not before a nest is built to cradle Ayer’s sorrow, and not until the roles that his band and their music play in his healing begin to be defined. From the first sung note of Hummingbird, Local Natives are frank in their presentation of a serious album, challenging listeners to heal along with them; cognizant that investment is proportional to remuneration.—Philip Cosores

29. Queens of the Stone Age – ...Like Clockwork
There aren’t many Herculean bands in the post-Zeppelin age—rock bands that’ve not only satiated critics and conquered radio, but have in the process permanently etched their inimitable logos into rock and roll history books. The sixth album from Queens of the Stone Age gets them a step closer to that mark. It’s arguably the best QOTSA record to date. While Josh Homme has always sought to please himself, there’s something for everyone in his music—even uppity rock snobs and downcast rock slobs. And …Like Clockwork satisfies on so many levels. It’s ambitious and meticulously assembled, seamlessly stacking leather-clad swagger with refined elegance thanks to Homme’s guitar work, arrangements and pitch-perfect falsetto.—Mark Lore

28. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
The 12 new songs on The Worse Things Get clock in at just over 38 minutes, leaving no room for filler or distractions. With a length equal to most old-school vinyl albums, it’s amazing to hear how many different approaches to communicating a lyric Case experiments with in such a compressed time frame. Case approaches each song with such incredibly bristly, focused intensity that the album’s brevity works in its favor. Extraneous material would either overwhelm or dilute the power of the often difficult and troubling songs that make up the record with its themes of alienation, regret and the spoken and unspoken tensions brought by love.—Douglas Heselgrave

27. Bill Callahan – Dream River
dream-river.jpg

Bill Callahan  has an uncanny ability to make you think about life. The images are vivid, the language, simple, and the metaphors open to interpretation. His records seem to be made up of a million vivid scenes that paint a compelling portrait of the human condition. As Dream River progresses, you get a sense of an underlying, almost optimistic love story, one that’s far from perfect, and one that could be real or a dream. And the music matches the dreamlike state of the lyrics. Guitars intertwine softly with equally slinky bass lines. Flutes chirp like spring birds on “Javelin Unlanding” and “Summer Painter,” while percussion pitters and patters throughout. There are more jazz flourishes than straight country strums, which add to the record’s dream sequences. It’s easy to get lost, especially through headphones. Callahan has used his art to make sense of the world, and in turn helps us make some sense of it, too.—Mark Lore

26. My Bloody Valentine – mbv
mbv.jpg

First, let’s reflect. After years of hype, rumors, heartbreak, internet hints and untimely server crashes, My Bloody Valentine delivered their first new record in nearly two decades. And it isn’t Loveless 2. Although m b v’s hazy artwork has the album title emblazoned in stark contrast, although this album features Kevin Shields playing those treble-scooped, gnarly guitar parts of his, m b v is a whole different beast. The production doesn’t feel nearly as glossed or obsessed over as its decades-older sibling. m b v feels like it’s wrapping up the band’s arc by revisiting old, very old material and bringing something new to the table entirely. My Bloody Valentine successfully followed up a decades-old classic with m b v, an album that stands as confidently, beautifully and masterfully composed as its predecessor.—Tyler Kane

25. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II
Unlike the Frankenstein approach Ruban Nielson employed on the debut—which sounded like a depository for all of the music and pop culture he absorbed as a kid—there’s more consistent musical plasma coursing through the veins of II. That’s not to say there’s not an alien green hue to it as Nielson still taps into future sounds to convey his love for the past. Guitars are more prominent this time around in the form of fuzzed-out strums and more controlled, slinky patterns. “Monki” sounds like Prince partying like it’s 2099, and “No Need For a Leader” takes ’70s arena rock on a rocket to Mars. Themes of isolation—whether chosen or not—become more clear with each listen.—Mark Lore

24. M.I.A. – Matangi
Maya Arulpragasam’s music has finely enmeshed the personal and the political, using her multi-varied upbringing to bracing effect. She urged the world to pay attention to the plight of African and Asian citizens, and the diaspora, just as she urged you to lean into her club-ready bangers. On her fourth album, M.I.A.’s focus has shifted. As the cover art suggests, this LP is a tight close-up on her world: her artistic abilities and credibility, her sexual bravado and simply her skills on the mic. It’s a telling move too that she calls this Matangi, her birth name, and the name of Hindu goddess of music. And on this album, the line between those two definitions is completely blurred.—Robert Ham

23. Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold
Parquet Courts’ second release kept a relatively low profile until it was reissued on What’s Your Rupture? in January, and it’s held up its promise of being one of the most good-timing rock records of 2013. Light Up Gold is a quintessential New York album, as the Brooklyn four-piece summon the spirit of the Ramones, the Velvets and Sonic Youth, and maneuver their way through Ridgewood, Queens, in search of Swedish Fish. Even the more muscular tunes like “Light Up Gold II” and “Borrowed Time” maintain a certain couch-sloucher physique. With lyrics that are as dry as the production, this one’s a timeless winner for all the losers.—Mark Lore

22. Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium
Armed with a distinctive howling tenor, a capacity for incorporating multiple musical influences in the span of a single track and a skill set for narrating harrowing tales of vice and virtue, Will Sheff has become one of indie rock’s more celebrated literary-minded icons. It’s a trend that continues on The Silver Gymnasium. But this time around, Sheff’s lyrical theme is his own past, detailing the people and places he knew while growing up in Meriden, N.H., in the ‘80s. By romanticizing on his own memories and experiences of love and loss, of remembrance and regret, of functioning in the world or feeling paralyzed by it, Sheff has written another collection of sordid and stinging stories. The songs on The Silver Gymnasium are packed full of forbidden love, controlling parents, fizzling friendships, premature death, prostitutes and drug addicts, broken-hearted bartenders, car crashes, self-medication, loss of innocence and clinging to the promise of youth as if your life depended on it. Sheff’s songs ooze with longing, and they throw you into a world that is unfamiliar yet immediately recognizable. The album grows on you, and sooner or later its nostalgia becomes your own—only the names and places are different.—Michael Danaher

21. The Knife – Shaking The Habitual
Tomorrow, In a Year, the 100-minute double album from Karin Dreijer Anderssen and her brother Olaf, is both smart and surprisingly approachable. Think of Public Image Ltd.’s Second Edition, the famously abrasive masterpiece with coherent politics and forward motion in the grooves. Think if Liars’ percussion monsoon Drum’s Not Dead was all it was cracked up to be. Think of last year’s Swans album, The Seer, if it was composed and programmed protests rather than improv goth comedy. This is The Knife’s first album to get lost in; the duo has put together a dense, disturbing world that forces the listener to adjust to their uncompromising terms, with layers upon layers of undersea sediment, anti-patriarchal themes and supposedly homemade noises. There’s so much to hear, all foreboding. It shouldn’t work—they went all or nothing. They got all.—Dan Weiss

20. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park
When it comes to humor, straightforwardness and never, ever giving a shit, Kacey Musgraves is taking all the right cues. Lyrics about same-sex kissing and double standards may still be scarce on commercial country airwaves, but that hasn’t stopped Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow” from rising as a fan favorite. A top-seller despite its lack of radio play, the song has become popular across genre lines by promoting open-mindedness in a way country music hasn’t necessarily seen before. The writing on Same Trailer Different Park builds on the simplicity and straightforwardness of country classics while mixing in distinctly modern romantic sentiments, freshening the sound for a new generation of music-lovers.—Dacey Orr

19. Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt
The first Waxahatchee record, American Weekend, was a demo—murmured, acoustic, trying to find feeling. The new Cerulean Salt recaptures some of Katie Crutchfield’s melodic sense with a full band that still manages to honor her lyric-oriented sparseness. Tricks like the kick-snare-bass propulsion of “Brother Bryan” or the miniature Keith Moon eruptions that burst open “Peace and Quiet” break up the braininess so one can rest on her solid rock devices without reading along all of the time. Her inexhaustible desire to make short, emotional rock records at an impressive clip and get every overshare out there is a rare thing in tuneful bandleaders these days.—Dan Weiss

18. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Arcade Fire have been really good for a really long time. Three LPs might not seem like much on paper, but it’s been a thrilling, nail-biting ride in real-time: The holy trinity of Funeral, Neon Bible and The Suburbs (each released three years apart, arriving with the geeky art-rock grandiosity of a new Star Wars film) ranks among the most impressive streaks of recorded rock music in the past couple decades. With a band of this stature, there’s always a bit of dread involved: “When are they gonna fuck it up?” And as early buzz generated around Reflektor, the Montreal band’s fourth album, the moment of reckoning seemed nigh: A double-album co-produced by DFA whiz James Murphy, boasting Haitian rhythms, backed by a hallucinogenic ad campaign? But within Reflektor’s polarizing mess are some transcendent moments—particularly when Murphy’s presence is tangibly felt.—Ryan Reed

17. Volcano Choir – Repave
Justin Vernon  may be forever branded as the guy in Bon Iver, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any gas in the tank for his side projects. Case in point: Repave, the second album from Volcano Choir, composed of Vernon and members of All Tiny Creatures and Collections of Colonies of Bees. Unlike the band’s first album, Unmap, the sophomore effort abandons much of the formless, saturated experimentalism indicative of the debut and instead melds anthemic post-rock with off-kilter indie-folk. Repave is the sound of revitalization, fusing composition and accessibility with wonderment and precision. And while Vernon has become known for his soft-edged falsetto and mellowed-out dirges, on Repave he and the band sound positively suffused with vigor and angst. It’s a musical and lyrical masterwork that builds and blooms in all the right places—and in places you’d never expect. One of the year’s biggest and best surprises.—Michael Danaher

16. Kanye West – Yeezus
That Kanye’s anointed himself as Jesus’ BFF isn’t surprising: After a decade of hip-hop domination and high-profile media spectacles, the dude’s made plenty of enemies—Jesus may be the final person he hasn’t totally pissed off. Luckily, Kanye’s still more man than God. Yeezus’ second half is weirder, darker, more introspective—all the qualities that define his best work. The first revelation is “New Slaves,” a racially charged gospel set to a gothic, electro-choral swirl. The first verse alone is masterful—as focused and emotionally affecting as anything he’s ever written (“You see it’s broke nigga racism that’s that ‘Don’t touch anything in the store’ / And this rich nigga racism that’s that ‘Come in, please buy more’”), delivered with a razor-sharp cadence, with an eerie sonic framework that adds urgency to the message. Basically, it’s the anti-”God.” The album closes with “Bound 2,” an old-school College Dropout throwback—built on a warped soul sample, crammed full of classic Kanye observations. It’s a beautiful blast of humanity on an album—a perplexing, fascinating, absorbing album—that often feels outside normal human grasp.—Ryan Reed

15. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Robin Thicke’s mega-hit might have out-partied “Get Lucky” in sheer saturation, but there’s no denying that Pharrell’s appearance with the chrome-domes is, without a doubt, the summer jam that reigns supreme in quality. Daft Punk and Pharrell’s not-so-subtle mission statement is slicked over by Nile Rodgers‘ virtuosic take on glossy rhythm guitars, forming an alliance we’d never imagine—but we’re perfectly happy listening to the outcome. The album may be wildly eclectic—even inconsistent—but the highs, like “Lose Yourself to Dance” and “Doin’ it Right,” make the album one of the year’s essential listenings.—Tyler Kane

14. Savages – Silence Yourself
The music of Savages is a logical derivative of post-punk that draws on Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus and any other of the greats from that period that you picture draped in black and never smiling. And, in a whirlwind of sexuality, violence and gender roles, the most contemporary connection to draw is something like Metz, minus the screaming. And while the genre distinction is far from unique, Silence Yourself satisfies both in its details and its scope. A song like “No Face” features calculated guitar effects and tones, ranging from blown-out fuzz to a more precise, tin-plated sound, shifting deliberately throughout the song, both Gemma Thompson’s guitar and Ay?e Hassan’s bass weaving around each other in a well-rehearsed dance. Hear the immediacy of the music and live your life in the same manner. This might all sound a little abstract, and, well, Savages as a band is a little abstract, but Silence Yourself evokes very real sensory and emotional connections, leaving it up to you to get something out of it.—Philip Cosores

13. Lucius – Wildewoman
Co-lead singer Jess Wolfe told Paste earlier this year, “We’re two voices singing as one.” And from the first vocal notes of “Wildewoman” on Lucius’ eponymous debut, her description couldn’t be more perfect. Wolfe and fellow frontwoman Holly Laessig sing in unison or in close tonal harmony throughout the record, bringing an extra dose of force to an album already fortified by strong song structures, substantive lyrics and precise playing. At times almost country and other times impossibly hip, the band’s influences ring clearly, but not overpoweringly so. Most prevalent is a soulful ’60s vibe, courtesy of Wolfe and Laessig’s matching voices and wardrobes. But Wildewoman’s true success comes by reintroducing retro girl-group swag to the 21st century at a time when it’s most needed. The album offers empathy for the heartbroken and sultry fun for partiers, all backed by fuzzy guitars and polyrhythmic percussion. The Brooklyn band’s infectious melodies, keen self-awareness and shameless authenticity sweep through all 11 songs, making Wildewoman one of the most complete indie pop LPs this year.—Hilary Saunders

12. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
Trouble Will Find Me may be The National’s funniest album to date. Not that it has a whole lot of competition. The bookish Brooklynites don’t typically drop punchlines, although Matt Berninger has snuck a few sharp absurdities into his lyrics. On the band’s sixth album, however, he actually foregrounds the humor, which is a welcome change for the band so deep into its career. Berninger’s self-deprecating humor nicely complements the album’s pealed-back sound. If High Violet was an ambitious statement album that propelled the band to new heights of mid-life/middle-class existentialism, Trouble Will Find Me is looser, easier and rawer—as laidback as The National ever get. Dense with allusion and mythology, Trouble portrays The National as a band that has soaked up so many influences that they’re bleeding out into the words. And yet, you don’t need to know who sang “Blue Velvet” or get the Elliott Smith reference on “Fireproof” to appreciate the band’s stripped-down sonic assault or sympathize with the confused protagonists wandering through these songs.—Stephen M. Deusner

11. Jason Isbell – Southeastern
The first few years of Jason Isbell’s solo career were beset with personal problems, including a well-publicized struggle with alcohol abuse, and his first three solo outings often played like too much of the same thing. But with Southeastern, Isbell has broken this hard luck streak, crafting an album worthy of his considerable talents. Each of the songs is a stunner. “Cover Me Up” is on the one hand a gentle, insistent love song, and on the other a moving testament to personal redemption that never once turns a blind eye to past indiscretions. It sets the tone for the remainder of the album, which is given equally to the promise of romance and the ever-looming possibility of suffering, both self-induced and arbitrary. As good as the songs are, Isbell’s singing may be even better. It’s certainly some of the best vocal work he’s yet committed to tape. His baritone, always rich, is deepened here by a grittiness that lends Southeastern a real soulful quality. By any reasonable aesthetic criteria, Southeastern is a triumph. It’s the most potent expression to date of Isbell’s talent (including his Drive-By Truckers output) and, hopefully, a harbinger of great things to come.—Jerrick Adams

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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