Top 50 Albums of 2013

Stack of albums

Earl Sweatshirt20. Earl SweatshirtDoris (Tan Cressida/Columbia)
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Even after his dramatic return from the Samoan reform school his mother sent him to — and what mother wouldn’t after hearing his brilliant-but-horrifying debut mixtape? — Earl Sweatshirt remains elusive. He’s certainly tough to pin down on his major-label debut Doris, in which he separates himself from his listeners with gritty smoke-and-mirrors production and plenty of guest spots. Those guest spots, by the way, range from the revelatory (Frank Ocean’s thoughtfully angry rapping on “Sunday,” Casey Veggies’ show-stealing “Hive” verse) to completely unnecessary (an uninspired verse by SK Laflare, whoever that is, hardly seems an appropriate way to start such a thoughtfully composed album). Earl weaves in between it all as the thread holding the album together, delivering clever, internally rhyming verses like a young, manic-depressive MF Doom. Earl’s rapping — and the album as a whole — is refreshingly ego-free: on “Burgundy,” he laments the newfound pressures of fame, while on “Chum” he tries to figure out where exactly his adolescence went wrong. Those guest verses keep the album from feeling entirely confessional or overly personal, though; Earl provides enough distractions to keep himself at least partially submerged in the shadows. Doris doesn’t feel like the solution to the mystery of this talented, elusive teenager. It feels instead like the tip of a very promising iceberg. – Sam Prickett

Video: “Hive


Kurt Vile
19. Kurt Vile
Wakin on a Pretty Daze (Matador)
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It might be the rambling tunes, often stretching beyond six minutes apiece; or perhaps it’s that Vile is still so earnest and laid-back on record number five. Whatever the reason, Wakin on a Pretty Daze feels simultaneously overwhelming and effortless. It’s a classic folk-rock record — a Blonde on Blonde or Rumours — somehow living and breathing in our modern world. Containing both soaring triumphs and grounded observations, Waking celebrates life in all its mundane glory, its music and pathos sufficiently captivating to keep the listener hooked for the entire ride.

But, typical to Vile, that ride is more of a steamboat chug than a speeding train. And with the addition of Kurt’s full-time backing band, The Violators, the journey is more smooth, consistent and enticing than ever. But we really shouldn’t be surprised: Preceded by four solo albums and a notable discography with The War on Drugs, it’s not shocking that Wakin on a Pretty Daze feels like a well-crafted culmination of Vile’s prolific career. – A.T. Bossenger

Video: “KV Crimes


David Bowie18. David BowieThe Next Day (ISO)
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Lou Reed, J.J. Cale, George Jones, Richie Havens, Donald Byrd — here are just some of this year’s big examples of the rate at which we are losing music’s most accomplished veterans. Who knows how much longer the remaining Jaggers and McCartneys and Dylans of the world will be around? All we ask in the meantime is that they don’t go quietly into that good night, and thankfully these cats have made the most of their autumn/winter years with a variety of tours and albums. The most effective work to come from pop music’s Cocoon crew, however, was this carefully measured release in March by The Thin White Duke, his first album since 2003’s Reality. It’s one of those rare new albums that sounds like a greatest-hits comp, and for an artist with a catalog as long and complex as Bowie’s that’s saying something. There’s a rollicking opening title track, the pensive “Where Are We Now?”, slinky sleaze like “Valentine’s Day” and “Dirty Boys,” and stylish Louis Vuitton pop like “I’d Rather be High.” Frankly, and not to speak ill of the dead, but given the choice I don’t know who’d pick something like Lulu over The Next Day as a late volume in their legacy. – Adam Blyweiss

Video: “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)


Tim Hecker17. Tim HeckerVirgins (Kranky)
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Ambient music and new age are sometimes seen as interchangeable (see: Eno, Brian; Dream, Tangerine), and that’s a fair-enough assessment. But Montreal producer Tim Hecker has in recent years increasingly focused his career on making the most intense music as possible that can’t be measured in BPMs. The opening drone of “Prism,” the first track on new album Virgins, puts this into practice in an extreme manner, his shifts in pitch and density rising ever higher and higher, like a stuck accelerator driving a sports car straight into a crevasse. It comes ever, dangerously closer on the horizon, but that drop never seems to arrive, Hecker keeping that sense of terror in suspended animation, the adrenaline in your system continually coursing, and that knot in your stomach without an exit from which to be purged.

If Hecker has a primary instrument on Virgins — an abstract conceptual work supposedly inspired by theological conceits — it’s tension. It consumes the whole of the album, for which he switched his approach to one focused more strongly on acoustics, open spaces and live recordings. The sounds of the rooms in Reykjavik, Montreal and Seattle where the album was committed to tape form a haunting, reverberant atmosphere for Hecker to deliver his eerie masterworks. The Carpenter-esque piano melody that opens “Live Room” is soon torn apart by harsh percussive noises, while a similar opening pattern in “Virginal II” is consumed by shoegaze-like distortion and layers. But never is there a climactic explosion or crescendo; every change, transition or ascent serves to perpetuate the sense of terror and awe that Hecker exorcises from his studio spaces. It’s the album of his that’s arguably the most human, which only makes it that much more frightening. – Jeff Terich

Video: “Black Refraction


Fuck Buttons16. Fuck ButtonsSlow Focus (ATP)
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On Slow Focus, Fuck Buttons didn’t necessarily build on what they had accomplished with Tarot Sport so much as they perfected it. The bits and pieces they’ve taken over the years from krautrock, IDM and post-rock are all distilled into immaculately crafted tracks, arguably the best of their already fruitful career. It’s true that just about every song on the record heads to a glorious climax, but it’s almost more satisfying how Fuck Buttons takes you there. The album travels through arpeggios, mellotrons and extraterrestrial twists and turns all with the intent of throwing the listener just slightly off base. And yet, there’s still plenty of melody to hang on to. If there was another artist this year that made such an intense journey to space and back, I didn’t hear it. – Chris Karman

Video: “The Red Wing


Neko Case15. Neko CaseThe Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (Anti-)
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Despite its long, unwieldy, even Fiona Apple-esque album title, Neko Case’s latest is neither pretentious nor inaccessible. The Worse Things Get… starts with Case’s pure and authoritative vocals singing, “When you catch the light, you look like your mother” on “Wild Creatures.” This speaks volumes for the rest of the album. At 43 years old, Case is no newcomer to the scene, yet her country-tinged alterna-folk-rock remains fresh yet seasoned. Indeed, one could christen her the Godmother of Alt-Country, but at the same time she has lost none of her edge. In fact, she sings of murdering a propagator of incest and other happy scenarios with such confidence that you think she does these things every day. Her voice has lost none of its attention-grabbing tone, and that in itself makes The Worse Things Get… a contender for album of the year; the great songs are just the icing on the cake.- Chad Gorn

Video: “Night Still Comes


Janelle Monae14. Janelle MonáeThe Electric Lady (BadBoy)
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Part of the fun of listening to Janelle Monáe’s albums is picking out the strains of previous pop music she seamlessly inherits. The Electric Lady calls out the Champs’ “Tequila,” Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Sly’s “If You Want Me To Stay,” Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love,” and once again entire sides of Songs In the Key of Life. Monáe’s placement of herself within those pieces might seem arrogant if she wasn’t so sincere about their importance, or if she wasn’t so meticulous about the details. If you’ve been following the plot of the Cindi Mayweather space opera that unites all Monáe’s works – I’ve let it drop at points – The Electric Lady weds her patronage to a libertarian Act III, but the songs stand on their own even more than on The ArchAndroid. This is Monáe/Mayweather’s acclamation to aspects of humanity that still put some people off and definitely screw with the cyborgs: sensuality, release, determinism and beauty. The raucous pleasures of “Givin’ Em What They Love” and “Q.U.E.E.N.” float alongside the innocence of “Dance Apocalyptic” and “Victory,” and end in a trio of songs (“Sally Ride,” “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes,” “What an Experience”) that hint things are about to get heavy. It’s like she planned all this. – Paul Pearson

Video: “Prime Time


Danny Brown13. Danny BrownOld (Fool’s Gold)
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Old didn’t place at #1 on Treble’s top 10 hip-hop albums this year, but it has a very good case for belonging there. The double-album structure of Old indicates right away that Danny Brown wants to do something ambitious, and boy does he ever. Side A starts out, aptly, with “Side A [Old],” a thumping track that allows Danny to introduce his concept – “they want that old Danny Brown” – and hit the ground running. Throughout the rest of Side One, Danny offers an astonishing series of unique, autobiographical tracks (“25 Bucks,” “Wonderbread,” “Torture,” “Lonely,” “Clean Up”), clearly establishing himself as one of the most forward-thinking songwriters in hip-hop. On Side B, he shifts gears to the “mainstream” section of the album and succeeds with similar aplomb (and some wit), not to mention bangers such as “Side B [Dope Song],” “Dubstep,” and “Handstand.” The fact that Danny Brown is able to maintain the cohesion of his concept despite the wild stylistic diversity of his execution is enough to certify Old as an instant classic. – Connor Brown

Stream: “Kush Coma


Darkside12. DarksidePsychic (Other People/Matador)
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Darkside is the collaboration between art-house favorite Nicolas Jaar and his college friend, guitarist Dave Harrington. For those familiar with Jaar’s previous work, all of his signature oddball vocal samples and popping percussion remain, but Harrington adds some thick blues licks and post-rock progressions to the mix. Throughout their debut album Psychic, Darkside seem to be so confident that their blend of blues rock and avant-electro will impress that they spend a substantial amount of time building anticipation for the payoffs. Opening cut and lead single “Golden Arrow” doesn’t really kick in until just before the five-minute mark, filling the void with spaced-out reverberations and floating static. The interlude, amongst others, adds structure and form to the album as a whole, tuning it from a sampling of what the pair of friend can produce, to one of 2013’s most cohesive and engaging electronic albums. – Donny Giovannini

Stream: “Golden Arrow


Death Grips11. Death GripsGovernment Plates (Third Worlds)

Blonde on Blonde melting in your hard drive. Crazy, mean-ass pirate bitches. The Matrix as imagined by Lars Von Trier. Hot Shit! Percussion echo chambers rattling inside your skull. This is violence now. Nursery rhymes muttered by serial killers. SoCa filtered through vacuum cleaners made of space junk. L.A. creepin’ under my skin. Video games that can’t be won, engineered by sleep-deprived schizophrenics. No, I don’t need your help. Raves on Jupiter. Psychological prison sentences. Vaportsunami. Oneohtrix-Point-FUCK YOU. Bootleg. Private concerts via Skynet. Death by bass drop. Suicide notes as performance art. Anger as product. Product as fuel for destruction. Hip-hop? Fuck who’s watching. – Jeff Terich

Video: “Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching)

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