By Zachary Kaczmarek
1. Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
Not only is …Like Clockwork now the quintessential album in QOTSA’s catalog, but its perhaps the seminal rock album in 2013, drawing on a very personal space emotionally for frontman Josh Homme, coping with feelings of isolation and searching for a sense of pupose after he was declared clinically dead on the operating table. The styles that the band presents are aggressive and equally vulnerable , blending their coined style of desert rock with a thick 70s influence. …Like Clock shows just how diverse QOTSA can be, employing gloomy hazy synthesizers and eerie piano riffs that had no presence on any previous album, creating more balance than they have ever had, catapulting them into an unparalleled class of their own.
2. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
Modern Vampires of the City marks an unexpected turning point that strips away most of the influence from the previous works and attempts to start anew with a darker realist point of view. The band’s sound and lyrical content has always been perceived by some as pretentious and preppy, but Ezra Koenig shows that the transition to adulthood can still be paved with creative eloquent lyrics. Dealing with existential questions and crisis of the heart, Vampire Weekend solidify themselves as a band that is no longer a work of progress but instead a band that has reached the apex of indie rock.
3. Laura Marling – Once I was an Eagle
Laura Marling wasn’t always so brave and fearless, at least not on record. The songwriter who once relied on brighter twangy folk compositions reveals a progression that has made her braver through a treacherous journey of agonizing romance. Marling, bluntly painting herself as a jaded soul bitter and torn, refuses to be a victim as she cleanses the venom left over from past battles, descending into dark cavernous depths only to come out unscathed and more radiant than before. Folk has never seen such an honest and voluminous introspective album.
4. Haim – Days Are Gone
The value of writing a good hook tends to get lost amidst the need to be cutting edge and artistically relevant, but Haim shows no shame in their admiration for 80s pop-rock hooks driven hooks and lyrics about being a hopeless romantic. Drawing upon a bevy of influences, the sister trio creates a genre spanning pop confection that somehow makes dejected emotions sound joyous. The passion and chemistry that they put on display can’t be taught or easily replicated, making their debut a pop marvel.
5. El-P & Killer Mike – Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels marks the beginning of the robber mentality that El-P and Killer Mike hope to instill in hip-hop. In their world wealth and narcissism have no merit, and no ones safe from ridicule. What makes this effort the best rap release in 2013 is how arrogant and confident they can be while maintaining a certain humbleness that isn’t common in rap. Their boundless style recalls a previous age in rap where competitiveness was the driving force of quality and rivalries were essential. Aside from the ridiculious and witty rhymes, Run the Jewels production value, thanks to El-P, proves to be the pinnacle within in the genre and in most music in 2013. Its hard to find another album that can goof off for a few bars here and there while still being ferocious and cool.
6. Savages – Silence Yourself
Savages feel like a band from years past, constructing a post-punk style based on jagged bass lines, crunchy distortion and pummeling drum fills. But they possess too much subtlety to be pigeonholed into the riot grrl label or any other stereotype for that matter. Gracefully fusing distorted empowerment with brooding moments Savages redefine what it means to be in control and yet so unruly.
7. Darkside – Psychic
Psychic lends itself as a seedy bluesy electronic dream, one that pushes the limits of electronic music. Nicholas Jaar and Dave Harrington develop a spacey atmosphere that hinges upon palm muted disco guitar riffs, fuzzy synthesizers, and steady processed beats. Its fascinating to listen to a few static noises build up over several minutes and form layers of sound that tells a story. Jaar and Harrington never stick to one particular genre or theme, and the freedom and space that it provides gives Psychic a unique feel.
8. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Arcade Fire’s modern day version of a Greek epic combines the tale of Orpheus with their own tribulations and worries. Musically, nearly every track feels like a bold risk, dabbling in moody disco vibes here, incorporating a punk intro there. On paper a double album based on Greek myth with a Haitian soulfulness wouldn’t be the type of venture you’d invest in or get a loan approved for. But as long as Arcade Fire finds themselves outraged and telling stories that warn against indoctrination, hypocrisy or fear mongering, and the man at the helm is Win Butler, the far-fetched and bizarre always sounds palatable.
9. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Random Access Memories could be best described as 2001 A Space Odyssey fused with the best cuts that the disco era had to offer. Album collaborator Panda Bear described it best, “Instead of sampling an old piece of music it was like recording things in an old way to make something that sounds like it was sampling something old which, in turn, makes it sound new.” Daft Punk didn’t exactly deliver the dance album everyone craved, but it’s the album that we never knew we wanted. Channeling 70s and 80s AM rock, the robot duo reinvigorate their appeal by going backwards in time and making disco palpable and universal yet again.
10. Lorde – Pure Heroine
Minimalism was all the rage in 2013 and no one succeeded at writing songs that featured nothing but bare bones more than Lorde. Being an outsider of pop culture and a privileged standard of living the 17 year old simply critique what she observes, particularly those from her own generation. The stripped down production gives her an abundance of space to take command and fill the hollowed out arrangements with her low register vocals. In terms of significance Pure Heroine is much more than a simple stripped down pop record, with Lorde waging a war against the vapid stars in the mainstream like Salena Gomez and being very critical of her fellow millennials. Years from now Ella Yellich-O’Connor’s debut could be seen as a turning point that revitalized mainstream pop.
11. Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Daze
Kurt Vile has and always will represent the most lackadaisical form of folk rock, being a man who values his time and feels no need to rush anything. Wakin on a Pretty Daze still paints Vile as somewhat of a lethargic person, but instead of sitting at home all day, he wishes to be somewhere far away from people and everything that disturbs him. Vile’s song structure prior to Pretty Daze was simple and brief, but on his latest effort there’s more than enough musical experimentation where he expands on a riff or lengthens his melodies, reaching their full capacity. Wakin on a Pretty Daze is without a doubt Vile’s most complete and soothing effort, realizing how frightened he is by society and simply wanting nothing more than to find a calming place to escape from all the pandemonium.
12. My Bloody Valentine – m b v
The post-hiatus release rarely meets expectations, but after 20 year break the Scottish shoegaze rockers pick up right where they left off, creating a more abstract follow-up to the timeless LP that was Loveless. My Bloody Valentine still exudes nostalgia but is still very much adapted to the 21st century with its open- endedness and mesmerizing vocals courtesy of Kevin Shields. M b v acts as a record that sums up the legacy of a band who laid the groundwork for an generation of music, but one that can move forward and progress if they so choose.
13. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
The first impression many first time listeners get is that the National are “bland”, “disengaging” and every other word that sounds more intelligent than simply saying “meh”. But their simple hooks and well blended chamber pop sound are structured to endure the long run and given a spotlight to Matt Berninger’s hyper personal lyrical depictions of mundane loveless relationships and recovering from love lost. Its hard to say that the National made a tremendous leap from High Violet, but their continuation of an established niche on Trouble Will Find Me leads to an equally heartfelt followup.
14. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady
Bridging the gap between funk, pop and R&B, Janelle Monae makes irresistible grooves without sacrificing any of her artistic vision. The Electric Lady is like a revolution in album form, complete with skits in between tracks that have listeners calling into a radio station and voicing their opinions about “the Electric Lady”, or rebel leader played by Monae. Through the 19 tracks on the album, Monae shows that not only is she an incredibly diverse songwriter, but shes also a talented storyteller, something that isn’t usually intertwined with modern day pop music.
15. Torres – Torres
Mackenzie Scott, more commonly referred to as Torres, embodies the spirit and hubris that every young songwriter strives to establish. Her debut album showcases this ability through a solemn lens that gives the world a clear glimpse into her raw point of view. The style varies between melancholy indie rock, restrained folk, and gloomy grungy synthesizers. There is rarely a moment where Scott does not appear to be candid and forthright when conveying these unfiltered thoughts. The production and concept is fresh, leaving in every blip and creak, showing just valuable and genuine a one take recording can be.
16. Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe
Chvrches isn’t the sort of group that has long winded verses about broken hearts and unrelenting darkness, or obsesses over composing 6 minute arrangements that vent every last thought. Every thought is compact and succinct, delivering more than enough sentiment with each infectious chorus. Upon first listen it can be difficult to understand the hype behind Chvrches and why they’re receiving praise from all ends of the earth. That is until the hypnotic vocals of Lauren Mayberry kick in and tug on every last heart string. Mayberry’s addictive voice takes the light 80s atmosphere and creates an otherworldly ambiance that is so unexpected, much like the majority of Chvrches debut, which sneakily throws out deep ingrained hooks that are fun and lovable at first, and then gloomy and heartbreaking later.
17. Sigur Ros – Kveikur
Kveikur presents an aggressive and less minimalist approach,where the focus is not on creating a delicate slow building or blossoming moment, but an angry and feverishly controlled mass of sound. For years now the majority of their listeners have had to Google translations of their Icelandic lyrics to fully decrypt the meaning of each song, but yet the passion can be felt in the music without understanding any of it. Sigur Ros yet again find a way to be brooding and dramatic despite the language barrier, which is something few acts can claim.
18. The Joy Formidable – Wolf’s Law
The sophomore release for The Joy Formidable is every bit as overwhelming sonically as their debut, providing blistering distortion and mountainous choruses that are so easy to get lost in. But this time around the Welch outfit learns the important lesson of contrast, something they exceed at when they juxtapose serene landscapes with equally charged chaos. Wolf’s Law may not be as exciting as their debut, The Big Roar, but it definitely seems to have a better balance and ability to transition from unrestrained to tranquil.
19. Los Campesinos! – No Blues
Los Campesinos! might just be one of the cockiest and most honest rock bands to currently exist in the indie universe. On past albums they’ve never felt the inclination to pretend or mask their feelings, reeling out bold lyrics and wearing their heart on a sleeve. No Blues ups that level of confidence by ten fold, throwing out lines about wishing former lover to lives of celibacy and constant references to conquering death. But all these references sort of go unnoticed at first due to the bright synthesizers and lively tone of Gareth Campesinos! voice. To put it simply, whether they can or can’t, No Blues will always lead you to believe Los Campesinos! can.
20. Danny Brown – Old
On his third release, Danny Brown shows that his perception of life and having a fine ear for beats only grows with age. Rather than writing a sloppy followup comprised of nonsensical party anthems, Brown hunkers down and digs deeper with stories of emotional numbness growing up and tales of drug dealing. He documents such a wide array of feelings, from regret to grim recollections that he feels he needs to self medicate in order to forget, letting the world know that he is a man who has learned from tragic mistakes and been made all the more wiser. If his past two albums didn’t convince everyone that Brown has the skills of an elite rapper and producer, than Old surely will.
21. Arctic Monkeys – AM
The Arctic Monkeys have reinvented themselves many times over, from the ragged punk beginnings of Whatever People Say I Am, Thats What I’m Not, to 2011′s psychedelic Suck It and See. AM once again veers off in a new direction with bluesier funk inspired riffs and more soul than any of their previous efforts. And perhaps frontman Alex Turner described it best when he said AM was like “a Dr. Dre beat but we’ve given it an Ike Turner bowl-cut and sent it galloping across the desert on a Stratocaster.”
22. Julia Holter – Loud City Song
Typically Julia Holter has not been one to embrace being loud or piling blankets of sounds on top of each other. But Loud City Song finds her doing just that, and creating a tightly packed space for all the trumpets, horns, and synthesizers to blur into one. The pattern that the album follows is a calm moment for thought in between the hectic jazziness that flavors the album. Holter said in an interview that the album is “about someone trying to find love and truth in a superficial society”, which makes sense considering the album is a series of peacefulness among the noise of the loud city that surrounds.
23. The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
The brother sister duo of Karin and Olof Dreijer live in the moments that many consider to be unnerving and strange. Shaking the Habitual thrives in that atmosphere as the Dreijer siblings leave behind the dark synthpop of Silent Shout, introducing gritty industrial pop that sets so no rules for itself. The bare machine like drum machines and wobbly bass sounds make it sound like it was manufactured in a factory of some kind, but the distorted vocals of Karin Dreijer add an off balance human aspect, as the Knife seeks to highlight all the misconceptions and bias in society. Its truly a haunting but educational album if there ever was one.
24. Kanye West – Yeezus
Lyrically, West is far from his finest hour on Yeezus, but his newly engineered spastic brand of industrial rap is engaging and spellbinding enough to make his most experimental album to date quite a gem. Implementing gothic Reggae hooks, Queen styled guitar solos, seismic bass, and screeching synthesizers, West pushes the genre into another realm that hasn’t been tested to such a degree. There is hardly a trace of any traditional hip hop elements, instead shooting for something that could be considered abstract rap. Its hard to say whether this will influence future artists to adopt such an abrasive and captivating style, but for now it stands as one of a kind.
25. Chelsea Wolfe – Pain is Beauty
Pain is Beauty is the epitome of bittersweet gothic pop in 2013, with the ominous piano and keyboard tones that are spread around Chelsea Wolfe’s evocative singing. The album title indeed does sum up the general feeling of each song, advertising right up front the gloomy disposition that is viewed through an aesthetic lens. Wolfe excels in this new found 80s inew wave, 90s industrial manner of writing and composing, which is reminiscent of the emotions and musical tones that Nine Inch Nails displayed on their debut Pretty Hate Machine.
26. Iceage – You’re Nothing
Punk isn’t exactly an easy genre to thrive in like it once was, thanks to the watered down punk pop and one trick ponies. But Iceage proved on their debut that they’re the closest thing to the hardcore punk of the 80s. However, on their sophomore LP the Danish group show that they aren’t just another band driven by noise or chaos, and some of the ambient and softer arrangements exhibit the sheer talent that they possess. You’re Nothing strives for more than just punk or hardcore, displaying a complete palate while still holding onto the apathy from their debut.
27. Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time
Sky Ferreira has had a rough go in the music biz, trying to generate appeal with the teens of the world using a popstar image and ultimately having her full length LP shelved by Capitol Records. But since shedding that teen sensation image, doing things on her own terms has brought her an uproarious pop style to latch onto, one which draws upon some lighter 80s influences as well as a heavier 90s style similar to Garbage. Ferreira isn’t looking for sympathy or tears, she simply tells it like it is and you end up empathizing with her pain in the process.
28. Deap Vally – Sistrionix
Deap Vally’s debut, stands out among a sea of electronic and Avant-garde music, with a primal garage rock sound that consistently hits with a mean and sassy attitude. Each track, so invigorating like a rush of blood to the head, making no apologies for choosing to be rambunctious rather than aesthetically pleasing. Thanks to Lindsey Troy’s Rober Plant meets Jack White vocal style and Julie Edwards breakneck drum intensity, Sistrionix embodies the kind of old fashion rock n roll that makes it the most blunt and straightforward rock album in 2013. What you hear is you what you get.
29. Phoenix – Bankrupt!
The vintage sound that Phoenix uses as a vehicle for recurring themes involving monetary, moral and emotional bankruptcy, provides a great experience that could be mistaken for a top of the line pop record made three decades ago. It all feels like its taking place in 80s California, with the VIP lists at nightclubs, phony personalities, fast lifestyles, and rich adolescence. Phoenix brings the synthesizers to the forefront, making the jittery guitar heavy pop a thing of the past. Bankrupt connects the retro with the present, musically and thematically.
30. M.I.A. – Matangi
M.I.A.’s approach since her career began has been fluid and resistant to any one particular sound or outside influence. Whether it was ridiculed or praised each decision that she made was on her own terms, and Matangi continues that progression of breaking genre constrictions. The glitchy beats, sub woofer bass, and varied rhyme scheme break up any type of consistency, allowing the mood to shift from modest hip hop to ear-splitting bangers without notice. M.I.A. strikes so many different moods and tones from being socially critical to free spirited and without a care that its hard to find an album that’s comparable in terms of predictability.
David Bowie – The Next Day
Charli XCX – True Romance
Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap
Mikal Cronin – MCII
Thundercat – Apocalypse
Charles Bradley – Victim of Love
Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus
Lady Lamb the Beekeeper – Ripely Pine
Earl Sweatshirt – Doris