Monday, December 23, 2013

2013 Year in Review: Music

Before I launch my list of favorite albums released in 2013, a few caveats: 1) I'm not a music critic. Worse yet, I don't even subscribe to Pitchfork. 2) I take the Potter Stewart approach to deciding what I like: I know it when I hear it. 3) I still think my list is better than yours.

9) Drake - Nothing Was the Same

I'm a hypocrite. I like to poke fun at the ridiculousness of Drake's existential crises: Am I too rich? Am I too famous? Why do my groupies settle down with real boyfriends? But Drake still makes great music, creatively channeling R&B and hip hop into one of the best musical acts in the pop world.

Best Song: Too Much

8) Okkervil River - The Silver Gymnasium

A coming-of-age concept album that explores the Springsteen-esque terrain of youthful innocence and nostalgia. Sometimes wistful, sometimes desperate, the album doesn't quite pack the same emotional punch as Okkervil River's past work. But it gets close enough to make this one on my most listened-to albums.

Best Song: Stay Young

7) The Avett Brothers - Magpie and the Dandelion

There is little here that is novel. If you like the pop-friendly Appalachia-lite of the past couple of Avett brothers albums, you'll like this. And even though the music market is getting saturated with folksy heart-on-their-sleeve types, there is something warm and familiar about the Avett Brothers that makes their albums eminently listenable for me.

Best Song: Skin and Bones

6) The Head and the Heart - Let's Be Still

Much of what I said about the Avett Brothers also applies to this alt-folk band, except The Head and the Heart have less banjo and more indie-rock sensibility. Earnest, sentimental, occasionally gorgeous, this album hit a soft spot for me because it was constantly playing in the background as my family and I packed up all our belongings this summer and moved 11 hours away from friends and family.

Best Song: Cruel

5)  Ka - The Night's Gambit

There wasn't another rap album on the market like this. Constantly simmering but never boiling over, it's 30-plus minutes of a grown man reflecting on his life over a soundscape that feels like a dark and quiet New York winter night. There's not a radio-friendly single to be found here. It's the perfect antidote to the grandiose corporate mediocrity of Jay-Z's lackluster blockbuster.

Best Song: 30 Pieces of Silver.

4) The National - Trouble Will Find Me

I used to make fun of the overbearing melancholy of The National. As with Drake, though, I've come around. What can I do? Few bands today construct songs with the same meticulous detail. The National fill their songs with a plethora of subtle hooks and choruses that soar at just the right moment. Their well-crafted songs are immediately memorably, and they hold up after repeated listenings.

Best Song: This Is The Last Time

3) Jake Bugg - Jake Bugg   

The only artist on my list who I had never heard of prior to 2013, Bugg caught my attention with the sing-along catchiness of "Two Fingers." Although his vocals are Dylan-esque, his somewhat pedestrian lyrics are certainly not. Even so, his blend of raw youth, British rock sensibilities, and alt-folk made this a constant presence on my Spotify playlists.

Best Song: Two Fingers

2) Kanye West - Yeezus

Simply put, there's not a more creative artist in the realm of rap music (and really, all of pop music) than Kanye. Never content to simply revise the same old sounds of his previous work, Kanye went with a minimalist approach laced with perhaps the most outlandishly profane lyrics of his career and once again created a record that is impossible to ignore.

Best Song: Black Skinheads

1) Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City

No other album from this year combined such lyrical depth with intricately constructed music. Vampire Weekend has always been a fun and breezy band. Here, they've matured into a band with something to say (or at least with questions to ask) creating a spiritually searching album that somehow tackles life's profound questions with subtlety and nuance.

Best Song: Ya Hey

Honorable Mention:

  • J. Cole - Born Sinner 
  • A$AP Rocky - Long Live A$AP
  • Gregory Alan Isakov - The Weatherman
  • Frightened Rabbit - Pedestrian Verse
  • Local Natives - Hummingbird
  • Arcade Fire - Reflektor
  • Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels
  • Pusha T - My Name is My Name
  • Frank Turner - Tape Deck Heart
  • Kings of Leon - Mechanical Bull
  • Deltron3030 - Event II
  • Lecrae - Church Clothes Vol. 2
  • Portugal the Man - Evil Friends
  • The Shouting Matches - Grownass Man

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