Top 50 Albums of 2013: Top 10
December 29, 2013 § Leave a comment
See you some day.
10. Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience (Pt. 1)
(RCA) (March 18)
The sudden turning on Justin Timberlake that came towards the end of the summer before Part 2 of “The 20/20 Experience” came out was pretty bizarre to me. I mean, he didn’t need to release that record, it’s about half the record this one is (if that), but I was seeing people who were initially praising this record as a new step in pop perfection go back on their word. Of course, as soon as this record came out, the reviews were pretty well split – go look at the AMG review or even the scores at Metacritic. It’s not a record for everyone, and it’s not really the record a lot of people want from Timberlake, one of America’s favorite celebrities (the guy who has supplanted Tom Hanks as THE best SNL host over the past many years.) But here’s what I get from this record: it’s grandiose and overly long, sure – but this isn’t necessarily a pop record in the same way that we should look at one. This is Justin attempting to shed his “the new Michael Jackson” image in favor of a “the new Prince” image. Obviously, he’s not Prince, no one ever will be – but the extended instrumentals and musical changes that almost every single song has here with Timbaland is terribly invigorating to me and really some of the freshest things that Timbo has put out in a long time. I had a friend that said something like “Timberlake discovered James Murphy” and I can surely see that as an influence in a track like “Let The Groove Get In” or other tracks where it’s about repetition. I don’t know, it’s a helluva record to me, and while I don’t know if I want to praise it as being a true artists’ record or a masterpiece, I think it’s totally ballsy and lives up to its ambitions for the most part. Forget the second record came out – that one looked backwards at his old stuff, this one looked forward to what he should be doing.
9. Classixx – Hanging Gardens
(Innovative Leisure) (May 14)
Or, Pure Joy: The Album. The reason that “Hanging Gardens” has a bunch of super dedicated fans of people who actually took the time to listen to this record is because this record is just blissful. Whereas Disclosure really capitalized on years and years of UK and Detroit dance music, Classixx is a trip to the sunny beaches of California over and over. It’s like a more pop version of that tropical album that the Happy Mondays did, or essentially a mixture between an HD version of the Donkey Kong Country soundtrack and playing beach volleyball in non-neon clothing. It’s not done tongue-in-cheek like Junior Senior did it either (though Jeppe is on the record), but it really sounds like a natural, totally organic Los Angeles dance record and the moments leading up to the dance. The album was great for me, because I got into it right as I was starting my second consecutive summer in New England, and while summers over there in New Hampshire and Vermont and Maine are wonderful, they really don’t compete with the summers I spent as a kid in San Diego and Los Angeles or even as an adult in San Francisco and Humboldt. This record was able to tap into that nostalgia, no matter how much I was putting into it, and just allow me to really find a place of comfort and fun and smiles that most dance records aren’t able to capture. “All You’re Waiting For” is one of the catchiest and poppiest songs of the year, one of my absolute favorite tracks, you get a track like “Long Lost”, which is so dreamy and sounds like what the wood elves from Lord of the Rings would listen to if their woodland realm was in the Amazon and not a place akin to northern Europe. All I know is that everyone I know who checked this record out totally loved it, so don’t be one of those people who didn’t.
8. Iceage – You’re Nothing
(Matador) (Feb. 19)
12 tracks, 28 minutes and with that – Iceage has put out what is probably my favorite punk album since well…shit, “Gutitar Romantic”? Yeah, punk isn’t a genre I pay a whole lot of attention to and while I dig most everything the RFTC crew puts out and was into that lo-fi movement that was hot in like 2007, this is easily my most listened to punk album that I can even remember. I had a serious addiction to this record that I was finally able to kick around July – and now that I’ve been working on this list, it has kicked back in, hard. What Iceage does better than most bands of their ilk is blend the interesting vocals and instrumentation of “post-punk” with a more hardcore aesthetic. The songs aren’t just BEAT THE SHIT OUT OF YOU type hardcore punk songs, there is an artiness to them, but they still do have that we-don’t-give-a-fuck, naivete about them that makes the tracks way more about playing loud and breaking shit than pondering “well, how’d they make THAT sound?” And the fact that this is a young, Danish band makes it even cooler because you have to imagine that they’re only going to get better with their third album. Just a killer record.
7. The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die – Whenever, If Ever
(Topshelf) (June 18)
I feel like almost every year I’ve done this list there has been one record in “indie rock” record that reaches back to the late 90’s emo influence I used to obsess over and just blows me away. This year, a band with a horribly long and pretentious name put out that record. This record starts with a 2 minute instrumental that is just a drone track of cymbals, violins and guitar distortion and eventually a simple guitar chord that gets replayed throughout the album. It fades into “Heartbeat In A Brain” which starts off sounding like a Get Up Kids or Reggie & The Full Effect song, before the vocals come in, sounding like Modest Mouse. But once that picks up, the band really sounds like many countless emo bands I loved my sophomore year of high school that you could find interchangeable. The track slows down picks up, shows the influence of Brand New before closing out for a minute of instrumentals that sound like Explosions in The Sky. Yeah, this is a band I would’ve loved a lot in high school and as nostalgia seems to be the name of the game this year, this is the emo revival record that really blew me away. Track 3, “Fightboat” has horns and is an altogether, louder song, but still has enough off-kilter instrumental passages and warped vocals to make it almost more like a No Knife song than Taking Back Sunday or something. Play this record loud, put on your tight pants again and just remember how fun it was to have bands who really spoke FOR you. Also, I think it really a great rock record, nostalgia aside.
6. Jason Isbell – Southeastern
(Relativity/Southeastern) (June 11)
If you have any sort of passing interest in Americana music past Mumford & Sons, I’m guessing you saw people talking about this album somewhere. Just about any media outlet that covers roots-type music over electronic and hip hop basically praised this as the best album of the year, if not one of the best singer/songwriter albums of our generation. And guess what – it’s both of those. It’s also the record that I’ve been waiting for from Isbell for 10 years now. Isbell was always my favorite 1/3 of the Drive-By Truckers when he was part of the band. And DBT happened to be the band I considered the best in the world. I was heartbroken when he left, to the point where I wore out the section of my cd where “Goddamn Lonely Love” was located (this is probably untrue). And then Isbell went solo and put out 3 mediocre albums. Three albums that had moments of absolute brilliance piled together with some Dave Matthews/John Mayer crap. It was like he was trying to crossover by being something he wasn’t. What’s funny is that “Southeastern” is the first record since his marriage and his being sober, and somehow it’s the most dour, minimalistic and emotional of his records. I mean, this is some Hank Williams -level country music. This is Townes Van Zandt without the insanity, a new Guy Clark. You name it. And here’s the thing: I didn’t even give this record it’s due this year, because I was bitter that Isbell was finally getting the press I felt like he should’ve been getting since like 2005 – and I wasn’t the first to break it. I tried to ignore this album for months for completely selfish reasons and eventually I succumbed and jesus, what a piece of work.
5. Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap
(Self-Released) (April 27)
When all is said and done, “Acid Rap” is one of the few rap albums in history where the execution of the project actually lived up to the ambition. And it was free. And it was by a dude who was virtually unknown. Honestly, as a complete album, as a singular vision of something that is wholly unique and will spark a lot of copycats in the future, as a feel good story that had a huge impact in the independent music world, the hip hop world and just random places on television, print and the internet – Acid Rap is a classic. I’m talking “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and “Good Kid Maad City” classic. There is no other album like it, there is no one like Chance and there is no one operating on the path that he is operating successfully; grass-roots, anti-label, surrounded by a bunch of future superstar peers. Honestly, Kanye ruled the media, Beyonce ruled December, Justin Timberlake ruled the early part of the year, Taylor Swift, Robin Thicke & Pharrell, Daft Punk & Pharrell, Macklemore, Miley Cyrus, Drake, all of these pop stars had these huge years – but Chance The Rapper gets artist of the year from me. A stone-cold classic album from a visionary. And I feel like I’m only now giving the record it’s due – even though I’ve been listening for 7 months.
4. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer, Different Park
(Mercury Nashville) (March 19)
You know, I knew this would be near the top of my list before the album even came out. “Merry Go Round” was one of my favorite singles of 2012 and one, in which I got completely wrapped up in the hype of – this young songwriter who was writing country music that was actually relevant. When a performance of her next single, “Follow Your Arrow” hit the web, I fell in love. When videos of Kacey going record shopping and talking about Ryan Adams were around, I fell harder. When she started to really gain popularity and was in every magazine and publication and looked like a more countrified Rashida Jones – man, she just has my heart like no one has since Nelly Furtado in 2004. I mean, I seriously love this woman. And beyond that, I love this album. It’s a country album, sure – some of it is really quite country, but it’s also a conventional singer/songwriter album, and much of it is super catchy pop music, not dissimilar from Taylor Swift or Michelle Branch or something similar. “My House” is a fun take on a trailer home that is totally country. “Dandelion” sounds like something that could rule adult contemporary radio and has a really interesting key change at the end of the chorus. “I Miss You” totally jacks Radiohead’s “Creep”. “Step Off” and “Blowin’ Smoke” are Miranda Lambert songs, “Follow Your Arrow” is an anthem. Lots of it is naive, but it’s also super courageous and super accomplished. Ashley was more country, Brandy had better songwriting, but as a complete package and as a totally unique pop star – Kacey is the clear winner.
3. Sam Amidon – Bright Sunny South
(Nonesuch) (May 13)
Look, unless he completely changes his sound, any time Sam Amidon puts out a record – it’s going to score really high with me. He’s one of my very favorite musicians going right now, even with his fairly slim output. “All Is Well” was my #1 album of 2008 and is probably in my top 20 records of all time at this point. “I See The Sign” scored highly with me, but couldn’t live up to its predecessor. “Bright Sunny South” sees Amidon gone from Bedroom Community, linked up with Nonesuch, using a more jazzy approach, fresh off a marriage to one of the most creative female musicians out there (Beth Orton) and a father. It also finds him reconstructing the “Shape-Note” style of singing his folksinger parents used to do while growing up. He also covers Tim McGraw and Mariah Carey. It’s probably the prettiest record of the year, from a dude who has made a career out of making records whose beauty is hard to even fathom. His singing is alien in the same way that Jason Molina (RIP) was an alien. His arrangements are sparse, though this record adds horns to the mix occasionally. And all he is doing, still, is taking traditional, public domain songs. Songs that have existed for seemingly hundreds of years and rearranging them into modern, unique takes. It’s about my favorite thing in music, and I hope he never stops – he gives me chills.
2. Kanye West – Yeezus
(Roc-A-Fella) (June 18)
Yeah, it’s surprising that it’s not #1 for me, also. At the same time, if you look at the Metacritic collated list of “best albums” lists from this year, “Yeezus” is far and away the winner for best album of the year – yet if you compare it with where it ranks as far as reviews go, it’s something in the low 20’s. And that’s a perfect way to approach this record. First of all, it’s one of the most divisive mainstream record I can think of since I’ve been paying attention to music. Second, I don’t know too many people who would consider it the “best” album of the year, but Third, I know a whole bunch of people who consider it their “favorite” record of the year. Because this record – it grows on you. That’s a weird thing to say for a Kanye album, especially one that is so abrasive and in your face as Yeezus, but it’s true. It is such a departure from what came before it, that initially it’s sort of hard to wrap your head around it. But then you keep listening, and you keep listening and it just worms it’s way in there to the point where the huge synth blasts and overly sampled Popcaan or hilariously bad lyrics just don’t even grate anymore and become totally essential. It’s not the best Kanye album, and as a full piece of work – I think “Acid Rap” is probably a better complete work, but the high points on this record, they haven’t been matched many times…ever. Kanye DOES operate on a whole other level, and it doesn’t always work. I don’t really like “Hold My Liquor” anymore, and I could probably do without “Send It Up” – but then I think musically, they are still really interesting songs. And they are surrounded by 8 of the best songs of the year. #2, #1, #25, it doesn’t really matter where I rank this album; regardless on how people feel about it now, it’s going to mark a huge turning point in hip hop trends going forward. Just like every Kanye album before this.
1. Sturgill Simpson – High Top Mountain
(High Top Mountain) (June 11)
I knew the first time I heard it. I tried to disprove that feeling, but I knew. This is the country album I’ve been waiting for, likely the best country album of the 2000’s, and the record country music fans like me, need. I pre-ordered the LP, I got friends to do the same, I posted youtubes almost weekly on FB, I made sure to tune into his 2-song set at the Opry, I regretted not finding a way to see him live, I listened to the record dozens and dozens of times – and even though it is a modern-day Waylon Jennings album, just another record in the midst of a hundred “outlaw” records being put out every year, this is THE ONE. It’s easily my favorite record of the year, or at least the one that MEANT the most to me, the one I wanted to tell people about the most – and I can’t wait for Sturgill to blow up. He has a big following now, but it’s going to become cult-like. This is as perfect of a country record as has been crafted and the best album of 2013.
Maybe you’ll see me again. Doubtful. Have a good 2014.