Top 50 Albums of 2013

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Oneohtrix Point Never - R Plus Seven

30. Oneohtrix Point Never
R Plus Seven (Warp)
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Brooklyn producer Daniel Lopatin cuts a broad swath across sources and themes for his electronic music, maybe matched only by techno stuntman/architect Matthew Herbert. R Plus Seven uses an entirely different formula from 2011’s Replica — moving away from sampled TV commercials to arrangements inspired by literary statements on synchronicity, connections, and consequences — which itself continued the zigzagging of recipes for previous OPN albums. Some tracks swerve from a whoosh to clipped beats (“Boring Angel,” “Zebra”), others fracture their central melodic themes in multiple spots (“Inside World”), still others are suite-like in their variety (“Americans”). Lopatin presents us with a daring vision of what ambient electronica is and could be — not unsettling, but unsettled in the most fascinating ways. – Adam Blyweiss

Video: “Problem Areas

Laura Marling - Once I Was an Eagle

29. Laura Marling
Once I Was An Eagle (Ribbon Music)
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If characterization were an industry standard for popular music, the role Laura Marling portrays on her fourth album would be a dramatist’s dream, especially within the fragile confines of acoustic folk music. Once I Was An Eagle avoids all possible clichés that dot the minefield of the “personal journey” – where peaceful resolution seems logical, Marling veers off into unsure futures; where inflated romanticism seems imminent, she retreats into a more likely, streetwise reality. Marling’s rejection of the troubadour’s lure to be all things to all comers reflects an artistic surety writers 10 or 15 years her senior (she turns 24 in February) regularly evade. “Master Hunter,” the arguable centerpiece, is a rough, excuse-proof statement that makes commercialized self-help look like a coward’s way out (“Wrestling the rope from darkness is no fucking life that I would choose”). Sprung from there Marling dismantles the surface appeal of self-knowledge, romance, mythology and hope by exposing the roots of those desires, not buying them for a second. “I saved these words for you,” she sings in the album’s final line, not hopefully, not reassuringly, not even particularly nicely. Tough, confrontational and in no mood to suffer fools, Marling still wants what’s best for everyone. – Paul Pearson

Video: “Master Hunter

Bill Callahan - Dream River

28. Bill Callahan
Dream River (Drag City)
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In Bill Callahan’s “I’m New Here,” from his 2005 Smog album, A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, he sings, “It may be crazy, but I’m the closest thing I have to a voice of reason.” I mention that here because, with his last couple of records, he has come to seem to me a voice of reason of sorts — one, to be sure, that doles out reason through the irrationalities of summer’s young boat painters accused of inciting hurricanes, javelins that take off and never come down, barrooms enticing seagulls into barrooms, the vast eloquence of days spent speaking only the words beer and thank you, and the taste of pilgrim guts that it sometimes takes to get one by. The river of dreams flows by, and the grooves that carry a number of the songs here seem to mimic that flow, shifting shape in a manner dictated by the unseen banks of that irrational reason at the helm of Mr. Callahan, slowing, twisting up the words into a surface of images that slides along the river’s black and glassy surface, the dreamer’s dream keeping pace with the phantom forms of unfolding realities. – Tyler Parks

Video: “Small Plane

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Push the Sky Away

27. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
Push the Sky Away (Bad Seed Ltd.)
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In turns fearsome and genial, the songs on Push the Sky Away seem to travel along diverse trajectories in pursuit of their own small worlds. Some seemed linked, like the first and last, “We Know Who U R” and the title track, each of which slumps forward with stoicism and reserve, settings for solemn ceremonies to infuse one with the strength to endure. “We Real Cool” fits into this stretch of the spectrum as well, its menace tautly held to its surface by rumblings and repetition. And while “Jubilee Street” may be the most intensely evoked place on the record, more so certainly than the lakeside where the city girls undress and shake their asses, its other half, “Finishing Jubilee Street,” is the adventurous subterranean wilds beneath it, the land of its genesis and a musical landscape more nebulous and annihilating. It may be tempting to choose not to follow Cave back into the present along the lonesome roads of “Higgs Boson Blues,” and rather to remain in the dark veins of myth that lie along the underside of that present’s skin. – Tyler Parks

Video: “Jubilee Street

Chelsea Wolfe - Pain Is Beauty

26. Chelsea Wolfe
Pain Is Beauty (Sargent House)
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During Chelsea Wolfe’s set at FYF Fest in August, it was hard not to be distracted by what was happening backstage, the chairs and staircases behind her band becoming wholly occupied by members of other bands — Baroness, who were playing later that evening; Deafheaven, who had played an FYF warm-up show; and various others that popped in during her 35-minute set. A few months later, when Coliseum dropped by San Diego, Ryan Patterson told an anecdote about Wolfe being blunt and direct with her audience, ending his story by saying, “When you’re Chelsea Wolfe, you can do whatever the fuck you want.” It takes a particular talent and command of one’s craft to elicit that kind of respect from so many other artists, a command that runs through the core of Pain Is Beauty. Where 2011’s Apokalypsis presented Wolfe as an artist with some darkly intriguing ideas, Pain Is Beauty is the crystallization of those ideas into something more ambitious and altogether beautiful. Wolfe makes powerful, chilling music, be it ominous like album opener “Feral Love,” dreamy like the Angelo Badalamenti-like “We Hit A Wall,” or the ethereally danceable “The Warden.” Wolfe doesn’t make music you can listen to casually; it consumes you.  – Jeff Terich

Stream: “We Hit A Wall

Chvrches - The Bones of What You Believe

25. Chvrches
The Bones of What You Believe (Glassnote)
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Based on their early singles, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Chvrches ended up one the year’s great success stories. The band opened for Depeche Mode this year and I can’t think of a single band better suited to carry on the synth pop band’s legacy. Aside from the obvious stylistic similarities, when Lauren Mayberry admits “I will sell you a future you don’t want” on “Lungs,” she betrays a certain honesty that’s both alarming and oddly moving. Chvrches knack for melodic greatness may have been The Bones of What You Believe’s initial selling point, but for me, it was the bitingly direct confessions that kept me coming back. – Chris Karman

Video: “Recover

Forest Swords - Engravings

24. Forest Swords
Engravings (Tri Angle)
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Forest Swords established his unique aesthetic on 2010’s brief but excellent Dagger Paths. The dark instrumentalist seamlessly blended dusty dub sounds with brooding soundscapes, wooden clacks and curiously looped samples. Engravings goes deeper into the woods with solitary, high-contrast music that lands hard with rhythmic, unsettling pulsations. Matthew Barnes, the Brit behind the Forest Swords moniker, hand-picks vocals samples that range from human-tinged distortion (“The Weight of Gold”) to elegant Eastern princesses (“Anneka’s Battle”). Engravings may take influence from a variety of sources, but like all things carved in stone, the final result is ageless. – Donny Giovannini

Stream: “The Weight of Gold

Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

23. Daft Punk
Random Access Memories (Columbia)
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In 2005, Human After All was a Daft Punk album that sounded like it wasn’t actually made by Daft Punk. It felt cold and drained of all entrepreneurial spirit, a downright dreadful release that required the French dance duo to endlessly remix it on a two-year tour in order to salvage its spot in their canon. Eight years later, Random Access Memories is an album meant for other times, other places, and other people  — and it was also, in fact, made by Daft Punk. Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter spent their Alive and Tron: Legacy money wisely, micromanaging a laundry list of manipulated samples, vintage live instruments, and veteran session musicians. The results are about as far away from pure electronic music as possible, no small feat for the minds behind the synthetic stomp of “Around the World” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.” Instead, we get a clear-eyed, vibrant love letter to the varied and sometimes surprising influences Daft Punk claim shaped their sound in the first place: disco, space and prog rock, even the stilted multi-part works of old chamber pop and now-classic rock. Naysayers claim bloat and creep throughout individual tracks, if not the album as a whole. Allow me to retort: Random Access Memories makes up for time lost and opportunities missed since Discovery, giving listeners an overabundance of aural Velcro onto which they might latch. – Adam Blyweiss

Video: “Instant Crush

Phosphorescent - Muchacho

22. Phosphorescent
Muchacho (Dead Oceans)
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The product of exhaustion and relocation, Muchacho is an album that fills its capacious sound with allegorical lyrics that are so easy-going it’s encouraged just to take a deep breath, recline, and let it all soak in. Matthew Houck doesn’t even need to be singing words to swoon listeners on the longest track, “The Quotidian Beasts,” which feels like a majestic stroll down a back country road. It’s impossible to highlight the beauty of Muchacho without mentioning “Song For Zula,” and despite the uncharacteristic sounds from previous efforts, Houck creates his finest song to date by layering strings with an echoing pulse, and topping it off with lyrics that put the pain in painstaking. One would think Houck’s cracking tenor would make this album less beautiful, but it’s actually quite the opposite. – Dan Pritchett

Video: “Song For Zula

Thundercat - Apocalypse

21. Thundercat
Apocalypse (Brainfeeder)
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Fun fact: “Tron Song” is actually about Stephen Bruner’s (AKA Thundercat) cat, according to an old Twitter rant from producer and friend Flying Lotus. This warm, lighthearted moment on Apocalypse — a funky assortment of new wave jazz-funk — is one of the rare moments on the album that isn’t touched by heartbreak or loss. The loss of friend and label co-founder Austin Peralta hangs heavy over the album, and its intricate, complex tunes amount to one gorgeous, yet heartbreaking listen. And while absence of Peralta is definitely felt, Thundercat continues down a darker path and the results are astounding, taking us to the farthest reaches of space. Grief is a heavy burden, but Thundercat demonstrates his frustration through his virtuoso bass skills and creates beautiful sounds that not only serve as a form of acceptance , but rather as a transitional piece to the next stage in his music. – Giovanni Martinez

Stream: “Oh Sheit It’s X

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