Sunday, 27 April 2014

24 Best Albums of 2013: #10 to #1

You can read the previous two parts of my Best Albums of 2013 list here. 

10. Iron & Wine – Ghost on Ghost
Ghost on Ghost is in some sense a continuation of the adult-alternative sound Sam Beam cultivated on his previous records The Shepherd’s Dog and Kiss Each Other Clean, but it also calls to mind the rawer, more acoustic work for which he first gained renown. Songs like “Grace for Saints and Ramblers” and “Lovers’ Revolution” are vibrant and passionate, full of detail without feeling overcrowded. Others, such as “Low Light Buddy of Mine,” so perfectly evoke the atmosphere and intimacy of a late-night jazz club that you can almost smell the cigarette smoke rising from ashtrays.

9. Beyoncé Beyoncé
I tend to like and admire Beyonce’s music rather than actively love it; individual songs have grabbed me in the past, but her records have been too uneven as a whole. Therefore, I was surprised to find that this record, which Beyonce refreshingly declared should be listened to as an album and not as an iTunes playlist, was a remarkably cohesive and rewarding work. Even in its lesser moments, Beyonce is still exciting and engaging.

8. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
The Worse Things Get is Neko Case’s most challenging record – it forces the listener to reconsider their idea of who Case is and the music she makes. Those expecting an album’s worth of fist-pumping anthems will be disappointed. Those who know the full extent of Case’s range will find an album full of piercing insights and irresistible lyrical collages.

7. London Grammar – If You Wait
I hadn’t heard of London Grammar until I read a glowing review of If You Wait on a pop culture website I greatly respect, so I had high expectations of the band’s debut, and wasn’t disappointed. London Grammar – Dot Major, Hannah Reid and Dan Rothman – have crafted an album that stands among such records as Stars’ Set Yourself On Fire as a chronicle of what one article about the band called the “quarter-life crisis.” If You Wait is more accomplished than its peers, however, and its best songs, including “Strong” and the astonishing “Wasting My Young Years,” achieve a remarkable sort of timelessness.

6. Haim – Days Are Gone
There’s no doubt that Haim owes a substantial debt to Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles among others, but Days Are Gone manages to wear its influences on its sleeves without coming across as mere pastiche. It's impossible to know whether we'll be talking about Days Are Gone a year from now, but if “Falling,” the sophisticated kiss-off “Honey & I” and the impeccable pop of “Don’t Save Me” are any indication, we’ll still be talking about Haim.

Head below the fold for albums #5 to #1. 

5. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady
When The Electric Lady came out, there were complaints from some corners of the Internet that it didn’t contain as many stylistic curveballs as Monae’s debut album The ArchAndroid. If one listens closely, it becomes clear that The Electric Lady is just as audacious, thought-provoking and thrilling as its predecessor. Monae holds her own next to an impressive slate of guest stars while affirming her own idiosyncratic style on the smooth soul of future standard "Can't Live Without Your Love" and dynamite opener "Given Em What They Love," which features both Prince and Monae's superb guitarist Kellindo Parker. 

4. The Lone Bellow – The Lone Bellow
As a result of the success of Mumford and Sons, The Lumineers and Lady Antebellum, The Lone Bellow arrive on the folk and Americana scene walking on well-trod ground, but don't let their seemingly generic appearance fool you - they make up for it with this record of incredible passion and genuine heartbreak, the most impressive debut of 2013. Many of the album's songs were written after frontman Zach Williams' newlywed wife had a life-threatening accident, and you can hear the emotion behind every note. If some tracks could have benefitted from more pared-back arrangements, the band's exhilarating live performances demonstrate that Williams, Kanene Pipkin and Brian Elmquist have a bright future ahead of them.

3. Eleanor Friedberger – Personal Record
Nearly a decade of Eleanor Friedberger's work with maverick indie-rock duo The Fiery Furnaces and her excellent solo debut hadn't prepared me for how quickly Personal Record would dominate my listening preferences for much of 2013. In particular, the fast-paced, poppy ode to friendship "When I Knew," bossa nova rhythms of "Echo or Encore" and triumphant closer "Singing Time" are some of the wisest, most insightful songs to emerge from any genre this year. 

2. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
Trouble Will Find Me could very well be The National's most personal album - "I Should Live In Salt," "I Need My Girl" and "Hard to Find" are certainly some of the more emotional, unguarded songs the band has ever put to tape - but it's also their richest, sonically speaking, and their most painterly (appropriate given that each song in the album booklet is accompanied by a piece of contemporary art). There are plenty of details I'm discovering months after I first heard the record, and the way the album builds up to the sublime release of "Humiliation" is nothing short of masterful. 

1. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
Every so often, a band or artist I've enjoyed in the past comes out with an album that feels like an enormous leap forward in maturity and musicality. A couple of years ago, folk-pop musician A Fine Frenzy released Pines, a raw, immediate work unlike anything she'd ever done before. This time, that artist was Vampire Weekend, and that album was Modern Vampires of the City.

As soon as one hears the refrain “Oh, you ought to spare your face the razor, because no one’s going to spare the time for you” of rousing opener “Obvious Bicycle,” it’s clear that the band has come a long way from rhyming balaclava with horchata. Modern Vampires of the City is full of adventurous songs  that grapple with Big Issues but never feel didactic or heavy-handed, a remarkable feat considering how Arcade Fire's Reflektor addressed similar topics but collapsed under the weight of its own self-importance. Vampire Weekend's record is a joy to listen to - the band achieves a tricky balance between effortlessness and careful attention to detail. It's difficult to pull off, and makes Modern Vampires of the City a remarkable achievement. 

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