It’s once again time for my annual music retrospective (you can read 2012’s here and 2011’s here). While the internet probably doesn’t need more lists, I nevertheless enjoy looking back when it comes to music. So much music gets released that I find I need to look back at year end to get a sense of perspective, and to consider releases that I may have been missed or put on the back burner. I also like looking back at my own listening habits and how they’ve changed: I care more about production and mastering than I used to, lyrics matter more, I buy fewer albums and choose them more carefully, and I’ve started to re-engage pre-2000 music after spending the last 3 years mostly listening contemporary music. John Martyn’s jazz-folk masterpiece Solid Air (1973) is currently my most-played album. 2013 was also the year I gave up on saying I could never choose an all-time favourite album and finally acknowledged the unsurpassed greatness of Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind (1997).
In terms of cultural impact and cool factor, 2013 was undoubtedly the year of Daft Punk and Kanye West. But to be honest, I don’t care for either of those artists (though they’re talented, etc.), and besides, you can read about them everywhere else. So here’s an alternative take on the best music of 2013. As usual, this list is almost hopelessly subjective and narrowly focused on the genres I like (try the lists compiled by Pitchfork, Stereogum, or Rolling Stone for a broader perspective). And while genres are apparently becoming more fluid — or worse, distilling into the dreaded “monogenre” — I still find myself liking music that with well-worn labels, for better or worse.
To my mind, what was remarkable about 2013’s music was its consistency. It’s always hard to pick the best five, but this year it was unusually difficult to then rank them. There are also a couple 2013 releases I haven’t got around to yet; namely, My Bloody Valentine’s mbv, David Bowie’s The Next Day, and Laura Marling’s Once I Was An Eagle. I have a feeling the latter in particular could crack my top five when I do get around to checking these albums out.
It wasn’t all good, of course. Releases from Christopher Owens (Lysandre), The Head & the Heart (Let’s Be Still), and City & Colour (The Hurry and the Harm) were underwhelming, fading quickly with repeated listens. Other artists released albums that were decent, but not tremendous. Among these are Matthew Good’s Arrows of Desire, Starflyer 59’s Kickstarter-funded IAMACEO, Local Natives’ Hummingbird, and Low’s The Invisible Way (featuring gorgeous production by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy).
2014 is shaping up nicely, with new releases expected from Broken Bells (Jan. 14), Sam Roberts Band (Feb. 11), Beck (Feb. 18), St. Vincent (Feb. 25), and The War On Drugs (Mar. 18). New albums are also rumored to be coming from The Antlers, TV On the Radio, and even U2 (produced by Danger Mouse, no less). Anyway, without further ado, here are my top five albums of 2013. Some honourable mentions are listed at the bottom.
1. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
The album after a favourite album is always a dicey thing: it will likely never live up to the old favourite, and risks endless comparison. But with Trouble Will Find Me, The National have managed to follow up not one, but two stellar previous albums — 2010’s High Violet and 2007’s Boxer — with an equally magnificent set of songs. While their previous efforts were embroidered by the Dessner brothers’ delicately intertwined guitars, this new album definitely belongs to vocalist Matt Berninger, who continues to grow in confidence and ability with each album. His melodies are somehow both effortless and quirky, and his wry lyrics continue to illuminate the nervous corners of both the social world and one’s interior life. Of course, the music is excellent too. Opener “I Should Live in Salt” manages to make a 9/4 time signature catchy, and the driving numbers “Don’t Swallow the Cap” and “Sea of Love” propel the album along, keeping it from getting too morose. The band also explores more minimal, piano-based arrangements to great effect on “Heavenfaced” and “Slipped,” two superb ballads. But it’s the album’s listenability that is really striking: I never tire of this album, and repeated listens only reveal more detail. The can’t miss album of 2013.
2. Leif Vollebekk – North Americana
I feel compelled to champion this little-known album from a relatively new Canadian artist, not just because I like underdogs but because it really is such a strong album. It was the soundtrack for much of my trip to England this past spring. Captured live in complete takes onto 2″ tape, North Americana‘s warm, close-mic’d analog sound complements the spontaneous, virtuosic performances. Leif’s band has a jazz background, and coupled with his folk songwriting and off-the-cuff vocal phrasing, this combination makes for a rewarding listen. The album’s sound is underpinned by a vintage pump organ and upright bass, and Leif himself seems equally at home behind the piano or with a guitar. Lyrically, he excels at storytelling, getting the little details right, like a girlfriend’s shirts hung off the end of drawers. It’s a warm, human album, full of stories of travelling, life lessons, and relationships, both new and old. It feels timeless, like the great records of the 60s and 70s. This album certainly deserves a wider release and more international publicity.
3. Bill Callahan – Dream River
If you’ve never heard Bill Callahan’s music before, Dream River is an excellent starting point. “I was trying to make a record to listen to before you go to bed, something that wasn’t too jarring or upsetting, something that would leave you with a peaceful feeling,” says Callahan. In this he succeeds, yet without making mere background music. Structured to resemble “dream-time,” this album floats along on a lush bed of acoustic and electric guitar and hand percussion. Callahan has likened songwriting to woodcarving, and indeed these songs feel hewn out of some musical raw material. Inspired by the poetry of Walt Whitman, Callahan draws on the changing seasons and other scenes from the natural world. The shivering lead guitar on “Spring” frames his realization about the nature around him: “Everything is awing and tired of praise / Mountains don’t need my accolades.” Callahan’s trademark lyrical style is both incredibly sparse and remarkably incisive; in fact, his lyrics are somehow so incisive because they’re so sparse. Each word carries a lot of weight. “Sometimes you sleep while I take us home / That’s how I know we really have a home,” he sings on standout track “Small Plane.” This record has certainly found a home in my record collection.
4. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
It took me a shamefully long time to start listening to Neko Case. And when I finally did, just this past October, I couldn’t stop. Both Sasha and I really enjoy this album. Reviewers always mention her voice, and it is indeed an incredibly rich instrument, capable of such range, emotion, force, and clarity (and many say it’s even better live). But I was surprised to find she’s also a talented lyricist, as The Worse Things Get demonstrates consistently. Working through a bout of depression triggered by family deaths, she draws on her difficult, sometimes traumatic childhood to paint poignant stories of hurt and survival (“I’m From Nowhere,” “Calling Cards”). It’s emotionally wrenching, but never depressing. Her unequivocal yet playful feminism is also on full display, most notably in the album’s jaunty first single, “Man.” Later she sings, “I was surprised when you called me a lady / Cause I’m still not so sure that’s what I want to be / I remember the Eighties / And I remember its puffy sleeves.” M. Ward, Jim James, and members of Calexico contribute to her fantastic backing band. It’s an album that demands your full attention, but also rewards it. The songs are short and tight, almost like they’ve been boiled down to their essentials. It’s just a tremendous album.
5. The Besnard Lakes – Until in Excess, Imperceptible UFO
So good, yet so criminally under-rated. Maybe it’s that cumbersome title. Whatever it is that keeps the Besnard Lakes from notoriety, it might soon end based on the strength of this album. I guess some would call this drug music. The songwriting is quite ambitious, yet everything feels like it happens in a daze. Swirling guitars, slow builds, lumbering tempos, drenched synths, and vocals placed way back in the mix. One reviewer compared their music to a whale slowly turning around, and I think that’s apt. It does have an underwater feel to it. “People of the Sticks” could be your next alternative summer anthem.
Honourable mentions, in order: Kurt Vile – Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze; Arcade Fire – Reflektor; Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away; Volcano Choir – Repave; Yo La Tengo – Fade; Phosphorescent – Muchacho; Bob Dylan – Another Self Portrait; Jim James – Regions of Light and Sound of God; Sigur Ros – Kveikur.