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

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