Turning on a brand spankin’ new album for the first time — especially a new release coming from one of your favorite artists — has got to be one of the best feelings. 2013 definitely did not disappoint on that front. Whether I’d been waiting for the album for years or I was just checking out a hyped-up artist that I’d never listened to before, this year I was pretty much in a constant state of excitement about all the new music gracing the world. Here’s a rundown of my favorite albums released in 2013.
*I was almost not going to rank these, but then I thought NO that’s dumb, so I forced myself to come up with a point system. This is how it turned out. It’s shockingly in line with how I thought I’d rank them without the points.
5. Bangerz by Miley Cyrus
There are some things from your childhood that you just can’t shake. For me, it’s Miley Cyrus. She would probably have to murder someone for me to stop liking her— it’s gonna take a whole lot more than the VMAs-twerk-fiasco, her wild ‘n’ crazy tongue, and the pseudo-artistic “Wrecking Ball” video. I’m not going to contest the fact that Miley’s been what she calls a “strategic hot mess” this year, but I just hope that people will be able to separate her public persona from her music. This girl’s talent is undeniable, and you’ve just gotta give her credit for piling on hit after hit with Bangerz.
4. Modern Vampires of the City by Vampire Weekend
Let 2013 be known as the year I officially realized that I like Vampire Weekend. Before going to the Boston Calling Music Festival this September, where Vampire Weekend headlined, I figured that I’d better give their new record a quick spin so that I wouldn’t look lost during their set. Well, LOL. Joke’s on me. Little did I know that it is physically impossible to give this album a “quick spin.” Those preppy Ivy-league vampires, their ska-inspired rhythms, and that horrible cursive font on the album cover sucked me in and won me over, and I’ll never be able to call Vampire Weekend overrated again.
Modern Vampires has pretty much topped every music publication’s “Best of 2013” list and was recently nominated for a Grammy, so it feels cliche to be jumping on the train. But honestly, an album that can reverse my disdain for a band and have me staking out a spot in the front row for over an hour at Boston Calling (no regrets) deserves a spot on my list. These are the best songs that Vampire Weekend has ever produced, Ezra Koenig is lyrically “on his Nobel Prize shit” (as Stereogum puts it), and here I am, feeling slightly embarrassed by how much I used to bash this band.
*What follows is a two-way tie for #3. C’mon, I’m not that bad at math*
3. Pure Heroine by Lorde
We all know that “Royals” is, like, the song of the year, but did you know that the rest of this album is also god’s gift to the world of pop music? I was hooked the instant that I heard Lorde sing, “Don’t you think it’s boring how people talk?” on album-opener “Tennis Court.” By the time she declares that she’s “kinda over getting told to throw my hands up in the air” on “Team,” I was sold. Lorde just gets it.
Sixteen-year-old Lorde, whose real name is Ella Yelich-O’Connor, is wise beyond her years. Her lyrics impressively embody the ennui of teenagerdom and ooze with cynicism about pop culture, fame, and growing up. She backs it all up with this incredibly sophisticated voice that’s all at once sultry, sisterly, and powerful enough to captivate a stadium just the same as the 100-capacity club in your hometown. Even when she’s staring creepily into your soul for 4 minutes, she’s so hypnotic that you just can’t look away.
3. Bankrupt! by Phoenix
I have a very strong love-hate relationship with Phoenix. On every Phoenix listening streak I’ve ever been on, I do this thing where I listen to them obsessively, to the pulp, until my ears literally cannot take any more of their glammy, insanely infectious rock-pop. I become repulsed by singer Thomas Mars’ French accent, which makes 98% of the lyrics indecipherable, and the synthy pop hooks that drench their records from start to finish. Time and time again, I’ve been incapable of stopping before that adoration-to-annoyance tipping point.
It certainly happened when Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix came out in 2009. At the time, I was still in my radio-sux phase and swore to myself that I wouldn’t get into an album that had the admittedly catchy “1901” and “Lisztomania” on the airwaves every five minutes. But obviously I gave in (how could I not listen to an album littered with classical music references?!), and yup, I rode the curve from obsessive to annoyed in no time at all.
Surprisingly, I haven’t yet hit the tipping point with Bankrupt! (FYI: It came out in April, but I resisted it until a month or two ago.) As of now, I don’t think I can be trusted to write any kind of balanced critique of the album because I’m still under its sugar-coated spell, hopelessly addicted to its neon, Bling Ring-like gaudiness and melodic shimmers fit for a casino. The transition from “Drakkar Noir” to “Chloroform” makes me swoon every time; I will even sit through the clumsy first 5 minutes of the title track just to get to the part that sounds like it was taken straight out of an Air album. Although you can imagine my horror when I realized that Thomas Mars is singing “Mint julep testosterone” — and not, in fact, some very sexy French phrase — in “Trying To Be Cool,” I continue to sing along with no questions asked. The song is just THAT good. (This just in: There is a shirt with the lyric. I’d wear it.) And I still have the fondest memories of reclining on a couch with my friends at 2 a.m. after a night out, listening to Phoenix, and just dying at how much we hate that we love this band.
tl;dr… Phoenix: You win.
2. Wondrous Bughouse by Youth Lagoon
I already wrote about this album over the summer and reviewed a Youth Lagoon show in September, so I’m gonna keep this blurb on the shorter side, but this underdog album probably won’t get much attention in year-end lists… and that makes me sad since, in my opinion, Wondrous Bughouse is leaps ahead of The Year of Hibernation, Youth Lagoon’s 2011 debut. Wondrous Bughouse finds Youth Lagoon (Trevor Powers) expanding into new galaxies with his sound, while at the same time reaching deeper inwards and facing mortality head-on with his writing. Powers not only succeeds in bringing his strange little world to life, but he also gives it to us in full color and in breathtaking 3-D, resulting in an album that couldn’t be more intimate, personal, and charming.
1. Overgrown by James Blake
Oh hey, huge surprise, right? Who do ya think I am? I’ve only written about James Blake in, like, every single post since the beginning of time. (Actually, I always feel intimidated writing about his music because I never feel like I can do it justice/I have trouble writing about artists that I’m so emotionally invested in.)
So is Overgrown the most perfect album that was released this year? No, probably not. But because I am human and I’m not tryna be an objective music critic here, a more important factor to consider is the extent to which an album resonates with me on a deeper level. Out of all the records I’ve talked about today, this is the one that gets to me the most.
Like basically all of James Blake’s music, this album is just a massive pile of gloom. You have to wonder if this guy’s ever seen the sun. (Oh wait, he’s from London, go figure.) But in fusing about a dozen genres — from the more retro to the futuristic — Blake manages to create this massive pile of gorgeous gloom. So not only is this record for the times I need a soundtrack to my moodiness, but it’s also for trudging through the snow on a winter’s day, removing myself from the tedium of daily life, and admiring the beauty around me. If the crushing climax in “Retrograde” doesn’t send chills down your spine and make you feel like the world is just this giant, magnificent work of art… well, I don’t even know.
Honorable Mentions: We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic by Foxygen; Anything in Return by Toro Y Moi; Settle by Disclosure; AMOK by Atoms for Peace
Promising artists to watch in 2014: Temples (debut album out in Feb.), Fyfe, Blood Cultures, The Griswolds, Letherette, Kid Mountain, ODESZA, Peace, Sam Smith (debut album out in May)