2013 might be the year of the epic statement album. It also might be the year of the perfect imitation of genres, be it pop, post-punk or disco. Whatever handy summation you or I want to come up with, there was truly an abundance of riches when it came to music this year. So much so, that the 20-odd listed here — ten that I’ll listen to for years to come, six that might stick with me, and a few untouchably great singles — were really hard to narrow down. Please, share your opinions in the comments below.
Yes, it’s long and bombastic. But that’s what “Reflektor” is: a complex, wildly ambitious album that has a lot to say. It fully capitalizes on the soaring energy that the Arcade Fire has spent the past ten years cultivating, adding in rhythms meant to move your body as well as your heart, but still fearlessly exploring the emotional and psychological territory first encountered on “Funeral.” If there’s any band they resemble right now, it’s U2, before they were swallowed up by their own ego, and if there’s any album “Reflektor” resembles it’s the Clash’s “Sandinista” — divisive but full of moments of meaning, beauty and rare rock n’ roll pleasures.
On “The Electric Lady” Monae’s sci-fi conceptualism takes a backseat to great songwriting and arranging. Though it’s still arranged as a story about Monae’s android alter-ego, it’s mostly an album about the politics of the dance floor and the bedroom, whether it’s the sexy strut of “Q.U.E.E.N.” or the silken love duet “Primetime” with fellow r&b rebel Miguel. Monae doesn’t care about current trends: if she likes how it sounds, she’s doing it, whether it’s big band horns, Stevie Wonder keyboard squelch or rock-r&b fusion a la Prince (who appears on “Givin’ ‘Em What They Love”).
Josh Homme took six years off from the Queens, and one can only speculate what that did to him, but “…Like Clockwork” is full of melody, gorgeous piano ballads, more spotlight on Homme’s expressive tenor, and the slabs of inventive rock guitar riffs that Homme made his reputation on. An album that veers from the epic, time signature-switching “My God Is The Sun,” to the slithery glam rock wiggle of “If I Had A Tail” to the heartbreaking slow-burn of “The Vampire of Time and Memory” is a very fine album indeed. A proper rock n’ roll album, finally.
There’s nothing particularly sonically groundbreaking about U.K. foursome Savages’ debut album, “Silence Yourself.” Honestly, what is sonically groundbreaking these days? More on that later, but what is fresh and exciting about Savages is not their perfect recapitulation of the biting, strident post-punk grooves of Wire or Gang of Four, mixed with enthralling Siouxsie Sioux-esque vocals. It’s the urgency with which the four women of Savages present it, as both an homage to a bygone era and a bird flipped to the Instagram era. Take no prisoners. Make no excuses. Also: best album cover art of the year.
There’s not a moment on “Random Access Memories” that doesn’t feel like it was lovingly, exactingly massaged into being. Every second of this album was thought out, from the effortless Nile Rodgers guitar riffs to the reliance on the technology available in the early 80s during the recording process. It is a tribute to a time when the world of pop music was still full of uncharted territory, and a wistful meditation on how one remembers the past. And it has one of the greatest dance floor tracks of all time in “Get Lucky,” which will be shaking asses for decades to come.
Spend 35 years as the most mercurial rock star to ever exist. Disappear, essentially, for ten years. Then, out of the blue and to the delight of your legions of fans, release one of the best albums of your career, a deep, powerful, noisy, intellectual, passionate statement about fame, friendship, keeping love alive and staying relevant. That’ss what David Bowie did with “The Next Day,” his best, most consistent album since 1980’s “Scary Monsters.” Full disclosure: I love David Bowie so much I have a Bowie-inspired tattoo. So perhaps I’m biased.
23-year-old British songwriter Marling’s “Once I Was An Eagle,” her fourth album, is a stone cold stunner. Marling is an alternately cutting and poetic lyricist, an evocative, sensual vocalist and, most impressively, a phenomenal acoustic guitarist. Even at her young age, she’s garnering comparisons to Nick Drake or Joni Mitchell, though her heart-on-sleeve writing style and often wounded-sounding vocals make her much more akin to Richard Thompson — especially in her guitar playing, which blends Celtic, bluegrass, indie rock and folk into a seamless whole. I defy anyone to find a prettier guitar album this year.
What can I say? Haim’s “Days Are Gone” is a perfect pop album. Every song is catchy – every one, seriously. Every beat is on time and lock-tight. Every harmony is irresistible. Once I hear one of these songs, I don’t want them to end. I never thought an album that sounds like the Cars meets Fleetwood Mac, with just a touch of Hall & Oates for good measure, would be so damned enjoyable. But, miraculously, it is. Sometimes the thing you didn’t know you wanted is exactly what you needed.
It’s been a couple years since there’s been an electronic album that’s really grabbed me. Disclosure’s debut “Settle,” however, did. It is neither dubstep nor house nor bass nor grime — it’s all those things, melding many different styles into one incredibly satisfying whole, as body moving as it is thought-provoking. It’s also one of those rare electronic albums that can be listened to as a cohesive whole, putting the pair of brothers that are Disclosure up alongside masters like Four Tet and Flying Lotus as a major player on both dance floors and on speakers at home.
Kanye West says things I find unbelievably obnoxious, whether it’s his cavalier misogyny, his political statements, or his planet-sized ego. But nobody else makes music that’s as sonically groundbreaking, as honest, as challenging and in your face as Kanye. Nobody. Who else could release a song called “Black Skinhead,” and have it be as fun as it is terrifying, melding metal with hip hop? Nobody. Who else could say such awful things about women, and yet be as heartfelt and even sad as on “Blood on the Leaves”? Nobody but Kanye. Now that, my friends, is an achievement — almost enough to make me forget about Kim Kardashian.
Chvrches – The Bones Of What You Believe
Teeth-achingly perfect electro-pop. Perfect driving music. Recommended for going to the beach, having a barbecue, cocktails on a patio.
Speedy Ortiz – Major Arcana
If you wanted to pretend that 90s alternative never ended, this is the album for you. Literate indie rock for bookworms and riot girls.
Arctic Monkeys – AM
Alex Turner is this generation’s answer to Morrissey, except without all the sexual confusion. A singular voice that has matured into something truly great.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away
Nick Cave trades fiery passion for slow-burning reticence. Sad and lovely, building to beautiful climaxes before receding again.
Jagwar Ma – Howlin’
This is like that Chvrches album, except much weirder. There’s something in the water in Australia that’s helping to turn out all these great psychedelic bands.
Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt
Sparse, raw, guitar-driven, convoluted indie rock, like early Cat Power without the social anxiety.
Lorde, “Royals” and Miley Cyrus, “We Can’t Stop” – two sides of the same coin.
Foxygen, “San Francisco” – A lovely trifle of a song.
Vampire Weekend, “Diane Young” – Also a lovely trifle of a song, albeit from a more skilled songwriter.
Lady Gaga feat. R. Kelly, “Do What You Want” – Dirty in a way that “Blurred Lines” only hoped to be, and bat&%$# crazy.