Top 50 Albums of 2013: 11-20

December 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

We should get to it, no?

Disclosure - Settle20. Disclosure – Settle
(Cherrytree/Universal) (June 11)
Spotify Link

There can’t be a whole lot that I can add about the most talked about electronic album of the year, that hasn’t already been said a million times. Look, it’s a good album. It’s an exciting album, because what Disclosure did with “Settle” is create a modern dance album that harkens back the last 20 years, really and combines all these different, very popular dance music styles and makes them really accessible and fun and because of that (and because of the hype machine, I suppose), they were able to crossover into the pop sphere (obviously way more overseas, but I had friends talking about them I would’ve never guessed would be too). A lot of their success comes from teaming with some huge up and coming British vocalists like AlunaGeorge, Sam Smith, Jessie Ware, Jamie Woon and London Grammar, which was the immediate draw for me (I mean, I LOVE Jessie Ware and Jamie Woon). But this album is a success because it’s just terribly fun. Some people more in the know can’t really understand why this is THE dance album of the year, and I’m not sure I do either, but I have a very strong memory of driving from New York to New Hampshire in June and listening to this record 2 times, really loud, windows down and it was just perfect. I’ve listened to it other times and it hasn’t stirred me, and then maybe even a day later it’s like the perfect record to me. Maybe it’s a mood piece, I don’t know, but played loud – it provided some of my best memories and auditory experiences of the year.

Ariana Grande - Yours Truly19. Ariana Grande – Yours Truly
(Universal) (Aug. 30)
Spotify Link

“Baby I” is my favorite Mariah Carey in many years. “Right There” samples one of my favorite r&b/hip-hop songs of the 90s (Lil’ Kim’s “Crush On You”), “Lovin’ It” samples “Real Love” and from there you can point back to the early 00’s and mid 90’s to every influence this record has. And that’s why it is fantastic. Also, because Ariana is a seriously great pop singer. But look, there were a handful of excellent pop records, including two that will appear later on this list that appear because of their spin on what pop music should be in 2013 – but “Yours Truly” is a celebration of the stuff that I loved growing up and didn’t realized until I was an adult. It’s a nostalgic record in the best way imaginable for its genre and a rare feat really. There’s a reason why very few of the 90s and early 2000’s r&b acts are around today – most of the sounds just don’t translate well. But Ariana, man. I love this record more and more every day. For me, “Your Truly” is this year’s “Kiss”, in that it is just perfectly written, tried and true pop carried out by a girl who isn’t going to be as big as Mariah or Beyonce or Madonna or Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga even, but is still just a talent that we better get on the ground floor loving. I’m sure you’ve heard a few of these songs on the radio – or maybe at the AMA’s, but I encourage y’all to check out the record if you haven’t, it’s about perfect.

Willis Earl Beal - Nobody Knows18. Willis Earl Beal – Nobody Knows
(XL) (Sept. 10)
Spotify Link

No single album from this year was more arresting the first time I listened to it than “Nobody Knows”. I was in Oklahoma, I was relatively hung over (for me), and I was listening to this in the morning  and it was more or less the first record I can remember since having crippling depression in college that basically didn’t allow me to get up from the bed I was on until it was over. And it’s an hour long. I mean, it really has this intense feeling about it, that with repeated listens has waned a bit, but regardless – I think it’s a terribly creative and alien-sounding record, probably the most “soulful” record I heard this year, and yet it’s not a top 10 record because of just how arresting and honestly, exhausting it can be. I’m a situational music guy, and this record isn’t really one I’ve allowed myself to just put on in the background or in the car, or listen to on headphones when working – it’s a sit down and listen record. Which I guess could be an argument to the power of it, but mostly it makes me tentative to listen to it. I realize I’m over thinking this whole thing and should probably just an enjoy the awesome record that it is, but man, nobody knows. I’m not going to tell you how it sounds, but it’s not of this era.

Valerie June - Pushin' Against A Stone17. Valerie June – Pushin’ Against A Stone
(Sunday Best/Concord) (Aug. 13)
Spotify Link

I feel sort of bad when I describe this record as Erykah Badu does country-blues, because it’s really short-sighted, unfair and maybe a little bit racist, but ultimately – it’s a starting point for a record that doesn’t really sit well in any genre or sound like anything else. But honestly, Valerie June is a game changer in the music scene. She is part of the Nashville country scene but she is clearly not a country singer. She’s super soulful, but her music isn’t just blues either – it’s just this world of American music that exists and always has and always will. The thing that grates on me the most about this record is probably Dan Auerbach’s production, because occasionally some of the best songs get mired in the Black Keys echo vocals and fuzzy guitar sound, which stops June from TRULY sounding like something completely new. Like if you compare two of my favorite tracks “Somebody to Love” and “Wanna Be On Your Mind” – both have this ethereal beauty to them, but the production on the former allows it to be something that just doesn’t equate with current music. I listened to this record a whole lot early in the year when it leaked way before August, stopped listening for most of the summer and then bought it in the autumn when it for real came out and it’s been in rotation ever since. Really excited to see how this wonderful woman progresses.

Chris Schlarb - Psychic Temple II16. Chris Schlarb – Psychic Temple II
(Asthmatic Kitty) (July 15)
Spotify Link

This album has a cover of one of my favorite lesser Beach Boys songs (“‘Til I Die”), an important Frank Zappa instrumental and one of my favorite pop songs ever: Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out”. And between those 3 great pieces you get these intricate, organic arrangements that blur the line between ambient, dream pop, neo-classical and jazz. If it sounds pretentious on paper, it doesn’t on record, because the first time I heard this record this autumn, I felt compelled to play it the entire day. 8 times in a row. The last record that did that to me? “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”. That’s irrelevant and my single-day obsession with this record certainly was only a single day, but I still find this to be a very excellent record. Mixes some Steely Dan with Joe Jackson, but also Sufjan Stevens, Bill Frisell, some modern jazz, it’s just great and terribly smooth, without actually SOUNDING “smooth”. It floats by, is mostly dreamy, but it doesn’t dawdle, even on the 10 minute “No Tsurai” which is the most experimental piece here. It is a fully composed album from start to finish and one of those records where when I listen to it, it makes me wish that I had studied and learned music at some point – because this is a type of record I would love to be a part of.

Brandy Clark - 12 Stories15. Brandy Clark – 12 Stories
(Smith Music) (Oct. 22)
Spotify Link

Spoiler Alert: this is not the last solo female country album that will be on this list. If you pay attention to the genre at all, you could probably guess what the other two are, and neither is Lindi Ortega. But anyway, this is an awesome musician to support, mainly because she’s great. Also, she’s an out lesbian who writes country hits, specifically for “strong” women singers, who have dominated what most country critics would deem the best stuff going over the past 5 years, but she’s also been behind some of the acceptance of talking about marijuana in country, NOT talking about trucks, and just blending traditional country with a modern sound. There’s no auto-tune in her song or hip hop beats, but there is some shit talking. Brandy’s album isn’t particularly “twangy” compared to even someone like Miranda Lambert or Leann Rimes, but it is through and through country. And it also is able to forgo the somewhat “white trash” aesthetic that some of these female country albums use as empowerment. It’s just a real musician and great songwriter breaking through, making waves and putting out great songs.

Jim Guthrie - Takes Time14. Jim Guthrie – Takes Time
(Static Clang) (May 14)
Bandcamp Link

“Takes Time” isn’t the first Jim Guthrie release since 2003’s breakthrough pop masterpiece “Now, More Than Ever”, but it is the first release that can be considered in the same breath. He’s done video game soundtrack work and collaborated with Nick from Islands and probably had his hand in some production, because he is a goddamn whiz kid, but this record is an example of what he does best: creates unbelievably catchy, dreamy pop music. Honestly, this is one of those timeless records that makes perfect sense coming out now in 2013 and sounding fresh, but it could’ve come out in 2007 or 1997 or probably 1987 and it would still have fans. It’s terribly fresh and well-crafted, one of those records where you have to turn it up to a pretty loud volume and just listen to all the LITTLE things that happen in each track. From harmonies to extra instrumentation in choruses and what not, Guthrie just knows how to construct songs that tickle everything I love about guitar-based pop music. His vocals always have that hushed echoey sound that people like Islands or The Shins or all of those mid-2000’s excellent indie-pop bands use (or Neil Halstead), and it just blends perfectly with the music. I don’t know if this type of music just isn’t exciting to people nowadays, but I hardly saw any talk about this record this year, except for the people who DID talk about it – and would claim it basically to be album of the year. It’s not, but as I said – it might be the most timeless record of the year.

Ashley Monroe - Like A Rose13. Ashley Monroe – Like A Rose
(Warner Nashville) (March 5)
Spotify Link

You know Ashley Monroe as 1/3 of the Pistol Annies, but now you should know her as the country singer who is bound to put out a bunch of amazing albums. Because that’s what this debut is. It’s one of the best neo-traditional country albums of the past decade, which is probably what stopped it from truly crossing over the way that her peers are able to. This is some straight up Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette amazingness. And the team that put the record together help out the cause, making sure that it has the feel of a classic country record, without just sounding like a tribute. Produced and worked on with Vince Gill (does he do ANYTHING wrong at this point?) and featuring co-writes from people like Shane McAnally (every modern country singer), Sally Barris (Lee Ann Womack) and Liz Rose (Taylor Swift) – everything sounds fresh and really focuses on amazing hooks and concepts – but it sounds like the best 70s or 90s country record you’ve ever heard. It’s got fiddles up front, it talks about weed and pregnancy and being poor and it’s the most COUNTRY record on the entire list.

Futurebirds - Baba Yaga12. Futurebirds – Baba Yaga
(Fat Possum) (April 15)
Spotify Link

My single best “musical moment” of the past year happened late last April, coming back from a fairly incredible date in Middlebury, Vermont. I love the middle of Vermont, it’s turning into my favorite place in the USA not along the northern coast of California, but beyond that – there was this time, where I was riding this high in my car as the sun was setting slowly and I was driving past farm lands and took a wrong turn somewhere and heading towards Lake Champlain and instead of being worried about going the wrong way, I just vibed out to everything that was happening, mainly because I was listening to “Baba Yaga” for the first time. It was a transcendent moment, one of those that will be remembered for a long time, if not forever. And this is the music that Futurebirds makes. The AMG review of this record calls it a “sort of alt-country answer to stoner rock” and in a way it is. It’s breezy and hazy, super pretty, but intense and really psychedelic. But this is clearly not an indie rock record, beneath it all, this is a Flying Burrito Brothers country rock record through and through. It became one of my favorite records to listen to this year in the kitchen and in general when I was stressing out – just because this is the type of record that really feels natural to my sensibilities, it’s comforting in the way that half of Yo La Tengo’s discography is. This kind of music needs to exist for people like me. That all said, I wish this record was like 15 minutes shorter and it would probably be an all-time classic for me.

Myron & E - Broadway11. Myron & E (with the Soul Investigators) – Broadway
(Stones Throw) (July 2)
Spotify Link

You almost can’t have a list of mine exist without some shout out to a retro soul sounding record and for most of the year, I figure it would be Adrian Younge’s collaboration with one of my favorite soul groups ever, The Delfonics – but then I discovered “Broadway” out on Stones Throw and immediately forgot that other soul music existed, period. This has a totally vintage sound, not like it’s copying anyone famous – because I can’t really point to anything, but I definitely heard the sound of some Northern Soul groups in this record. The Soul Investigators kill it on production, all vintage and with amazing breaks and Myron & E for their part don’t have powerful voices, it almost sounds like they can’t reach the ranges that are required for most soul singers, and that’s what makes this work better – because it makes the record more about the WHOLE sound than just them as vocalists. Any fan of hip hop, or Detroit or The Delfonics or anything like that should be checking this record out – it has become something I’ve obsessed over like 3 or 4 times since July.

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