I’ve heard people say 2013 wasn’t a great year for music, and my easy rebuttal is: You just didn’t hear enough stuff. In the Spotify/Youtube/Bandcamp era, there’s no shortage of easily findable, free-to-spin albums out there, and only the most cynical listener wouldn’t be able to uncover some gems simply by digging. Is the top of my list loaded with best-of-the-decade favorites? My No. 1 pick aside, probably not. But 2013 was deep, like 50 albums deep, with music I expect to spin for as long as I’m around. And if that’s not why we keep listening, what is?
1. Kurt Vile, Wakin on a Pretty Daze The Philly singer/songwriter stretched out, to the tune of 8-, 9- and 10-minute tracks, without wasting a single moment, piling up nimble melodies and sneakily brainy lyrics that grow stronger with repeat visits.
2. Tim Hecker, Virgins Montreal’s noisy ambient maestro continued his winning streak with an album as entrancingly beautiful as it is frighteningly claustrophobic.
3. Moonface, Julia With Blue Jeans On In case any doubt lingered that Spencer Krug is his generation’s most talented songwriter, this stripped-down yet stunningly sophisticated collection set the record straight.
4. Deafheaven, Sunbather Skip the hipsters vs. metalheads storyline and delve straight into the achievement—a post-rock soundscape with a screamy vocal kick. Listen with the lights out.
5. Autechre, Exai Two hours and eight vinyl sides must be too much, right? Nah. The skittish British electronicists rewarded the patient with their best work in more than a decade.
6. Iceage, You’re Nothing The punky Danes took a leap forward compositionally while retaining every bit of their youthful intensity. Begin with “In Haze,” one of the year’s shout-out-loud standouts.
7. Dustin Wong, Mediation of Ecstatic Energy The former Ponytail guitarist’s looped and layered (mostly) instrumental world pulls me in deeper each time I return to it, which has been often this month.
8. Polvo, Siberia In their second life as a band, the Carolina indie vets have released two albums that rank alongside their ’90s best, most recently this nimble guitar rager.
9. Atoms for Peace, Amok Thom Yorke topped the latest Radiohead record with a project that’s equal parts addictive electronics and sly pop constructs.
10. White Fence, Cyclops Reap LA’s psych-pop prodigy unleashed his best studio set yet in 2013, a lo-fi gem at the intersection of Olivia Tremor Control and John Lennon.
Full disclosure: I don’t like Disclosure. Actually, I don’t really have a favorite album of the year; I have several. Just as I reached for the repeat button for one record, another came along to thwart the quest to establish my bestie. Spotify says I streamed Foals’ Holy Fire the most, though it’s my least favorite Foals release. iTunes logged double-digit spins of Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, but its inconsistency (and lack of British genealogy, apparently) keeps it from advancing to my obligatory shortlist, where I honor superior exercises in four-on-the-floor pretension.
1. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City The topper, if only to admit defeat in my attempts to write off this NYC foursome, which accelerated its artistic ascent with assuredness, melodic facility and the visionary incorporation of its diverse influences. If you’re still annoyed, you’re either a world-music purist, or resent its talent and chutzpah.
2. Kurt Vile, Wakin on a Pretty Daze The absorption of Vile’s second masterpiece in a row is as immediate as the opiate it sonically approximates, his transportive strummers favoring placidity and warmth over any immediate rush.
3. F*ck Buttons, Slow Focus The band name suggests real daft punks, but its intricate and gorgeous noise is one to be taken seriously. In a boom year for avant-electronic music, Slow Focus felt the most immersive and revelatory.
4. Jon Hopkins, Immunity Immediately behind F*ck Buttons—and overshadowing the latest from my perennial ambient techno fave, The Field—is fellow Englishman Jon Hopkins, his pulsating electronic soundscapes drawing you deeper with each listen.
5. Pet Shop Boys, Electric Thirty years into their career and the London duo manage the most invigorating and addictive album yet, offering a needed tutorial on dancefloor anthemry with lessons from the Club MTV era.
6. My Bloody Valentine, mbv A collection of great melodies and studio-jam slivers looped into meditation rather than fleshed out into a song—and the effect is guitar zen.
7. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories Daft Punk daringly spent the capital earned during its resurgence by meticulously and lovingly honoring the misunderstood foundations (namely disco and prog) of modern dance music. A vinyl must.
8. Arctic Monkeys, AM The former teen faves not only made an album America could appreciate, but finally lived up to the British press hype. A stomper—and a sleeper.
9. John Talabot, DJ-Kicks It’s a mix, but the curation of this deep, Balearic journey—one indicative of Talabot’s skill and aesthetic—sounds more accomplished than most studio “dance” albums.
10. Rudimental, Home I’m still kicking myself for missing the English upstart’s August 9 House of Blues appearance. Its full-band take on drum ’n’ bass is as stirring as it is evolutionary.
In 2013, outrage over everything from Miley Cyrus’ twerking to Kanye West’s ongoing provocations threatened to overshadow the plethora of quality albums released throughout the year. Specifically, it was a gratifying one for female musicians of all genres: Lorde, Sky Ferreira, Speedy Ortiz and Haim had breakthrough years, while Paramore, Beyoncé and yes, Miley, cemented their chart supremacy. While veteran rock acts were hit-or-miss—The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs released records that barely made a dent—Arctic Monkeys, Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age picked up the slack. Here are 10 albums that stayed in heavy rotation for me.
1. Fall Out Boy, Save Rock and Roll The beloved neo-emo quartet actually saved bland pop music by touching on glam, hip-pop, ’70s soft rock, ’80s radio fizz and unhinged punk.
2. David Bowie, The Next Day This stirring, vibrant surprise album echoed the murky atmospherics and grayscale guitars of Bowie’s peak creative years while ruminating on the seedy side of stardom and mortality.
3. Johnny Marr, The Messenger On his first solo record(!), the former Smiths guitarist found inspiration in his Brit-rock roots (and Brit-pop descendants) as he crafted catchy, confident songs.
4. Minor Alps, Get There Juliana Hatfield and Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws joined forces for a melancholy, wistful collection of fuzzy power-pop, jangly dream-pop and total harmonic perfection.
5. Paramore, Paramore The spunky trio incorporated more of its influences—space rock, ’90s hip-hop, power-punk—while keeping its knack for indelible hooks and melodies intact.
6. Nine Inch Nails, Hesitation Marks Fresh off side projects and soundtrack work, Trent Reznor zeroed in on brainy electronics and abrasive guitar textures—and kept his dark side at bay.
7. Speedy Ortiz, Major Arcana In a year filled with ’90s nostalgia, these New Englanders emulated the decade’s fuzzy indie rock but subverted the retro tag behind crisp production and taut lyrics.
8. Panic! At the Disco, Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! Like Fall Out Boy, Panic! threw fans plenty of sonic curveballs, in the form of sleek disco, sharp dance-punk and playful electro.
9. Veronica Falls, Waiting for Something to Happen The U.K. indie-popsters match whimsical jangle, lovely co-ed harmonies, lilting melodies and a hint of gothic despair on this underrated second record.
10. Disclosure, Settle These two young musicians from England harness vintage house music, old-school rave culture and the ’90s electronics on a pristine debut record.