This has been a great year for music, although if you followed only the top end of the Billboard charts, you never would’ve known it.
As has been the case from time immemorial – with a few notable exceptions – the real story concerning movements in popular music took place elsewhere. Sure, Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke and Kanye West and Jay-Z made the most money and fostered the highest public profiles. But musically speaking, they weren’t up to much. (One might argue that West made some inventive music this year, but his collage-art sounded scattered (and scatterbrained) to these ears. Plus, the guy just never shut up. That’s annoying, no matter how great you think you are.)
My own list of the year’s top albums is all over the place, I freely admit. Glancing at it, I can discern no thread of continuity, no zeitgeist-revealing connective tissue, no “This is the new thing, kiddies!” exclamations. Rather, I found myself pulled toward the best music being made in a wide variety of idioms, sounds connected solely by their excellence, and not their demographic marketing intentions.
Great music does not acknowledge age, skin color, marketing niche or fashion sense – it is about its own ability to make some sort of human connection. Happily, as overwhelmingly alienating as life in contemporary culture can be, I for one felt a great deal of human connection with a broad spectrum of modern music. It would be unreasonable to ask for more. So I don’t.
Here, then – in descending order – are my picks for the best albums of 2013. I interpret in a positive fashion the fact that I easily could’ve picked 25 – or even 50 – more.
25. John Grant, Pale Green Ghosts (PTKF)
The former member of the Czars did an about-face this time around, trading in earthy, organic fare for the icy climes of European electro-laced art-rock. Like Grant’s previous album, the excellent “Queen of Denmark,” except performed by Neu! or Kraftwerk. Should not have worked, but good lord, did it ever.
24. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City (XL)
Less in-your-face and far more ruminative than past releases, Vampire Weekend’s 2013 release found the band stripping things back a bit, and in the process, revealing the strength of its melodies, minus much of the hoopla of yore. Because of this, the music offers the listener more room to breathe within it, and therefore, its power grows slowly with each listen.
23. Charles Bradley, Victim of Love (Daptone)
The soul/R&B album of the year. Bradley is the genuine article. Please, just get your hands on this album. You’ll agree after one listen.
22. Foals, Holy Fire (WM UK)
Who says you can’t make danceable rock music that still can stand on its own as well-constructed pop? English band Foals’ third release is its finest, as funky as it is well-written. My money’s on this band continuing to grow over the coming decades into something singularly awesome. “Holy Fire” suggests the band is well on its way.
21. Todd Rundgren, State (Esoteric recordings)
Rundgren primarily in electronic music mode, but still, no disguising the strength of the melodies and the incisiveness of the lyrics. In “Sir Reality,” we have a song that should’ve been nominated for a Grammy. But no. The Academy was sleeping.
20. Deep Purple, Now What!? (Eagle Rock)
One of the most vibrant hard rock albums of the year. With Bob Ezrin handling production duties, Purple delivered in a major way. Dense, challenging, but always revolving around a serious groove. I’d skip “Hell To Pay,” personally - the “shout chorus” feels out of place on this otherwise stately, progressive collection. A minor quibble.
19. Jason Isbell, Southeastern (Southeastern Records)
Sparse and beautifully moody. Southern soul meets singer/songwriter fare. A heartbreaker, in many ways, but the pain is of the sweet variety.
18. Midlake, Antiphon (ATO)
A masterpiece of modern psychedelia, to be sure, but don’t be misled; the trippy bits and the heady atmosphere are all summoned in service of strong songwriting. Losing founding member, songwriter and singer Tim Smith did not capsize Midlake. Man, what a rebound.
17. Volto, Incitare (Volto)
Tool drummer Danny Carey’s side project is, not surprisingly, at turns menacing, gorgeous, evocative, and dazzlingly virtuosic.
16. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories (Columbia)
The whole promotional campaign seemed a bit crass, and the helmets are a shtick, but when the music is this funky and soulful, who cares? A love letter to ’70s soul and the finer side of disco.
15. Jaga Jazzist, Live with Britten Sinfonia (Ninja Tune)
This band has created its own genre of music. Not wholly jazz, or classical, or post-modern, it is instead an organic hybrid of more styles than might reasonably be counted. Brilliant.
14. Johnny Marr, The Messenger (Sire)
On first listen, one might be excused for thinking, “Wow, this would be so amazing if Morrissey was singing on it.” Yes, it would, but after a few spins, you warm to Marr’s singing, and then all bets are off. “The Messenger” is Brit-pop at its finest, from the guitarist who, it could be argued, created the style in the first place.
13. White Denim, Corsicana Lemonade (Downtown)
Psychedelic garage rock with a Texas twang and a strong dose of Southern soul. Where did these guys come from? And could they be the next generation’s Wilco?
12. Laura Marling, Once I Was An Eagle (Ribbon Music)
The gorgeous, ethereal singing, the broad pallet of open guitar tunings, the poetic eye turned toward the failings of relationships and the inevitability of loss – Laura Marling’s fourth album came on like her own version of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.” Beautiful.
11. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away (Bad Seeds LTD.)
Classic Cave & the Bad Seeds. Creepy, sinister, inventive, disturbing and beautiful.
10. The National, Trouble Will Find Me (4AD)
From the opening burst of “I Should Live In Salt,” this album had me hooked. So ruminative and low-key on the surface, “Trouble Will Find Me” revealed layer after layer of sonic and emotional nuance with each successive listen. The aural equivalent of a warm, soft blanket on a bitterly cold night.
9. Mike Keneally, You Must Be This Tall (Exowax)
Keneally is one of a handful of contemporary record-makers who might reasonably be referred to as a genius, as oft-abused as that word has become. He flirts with the avant-garde, but at heart, he is a brilliantly twisted pop songsmith who just happens to hear music in a weird and wonderful way. Such a refreshingly unique album.
8. Paul McCartney, New (Hear Music)
Even I, a lifelong McCartney maniac, am surprised that, at 71, the man can make music as vital, interesting and modern as this. A late-career gift from a guy who has given us so much more than we ever really deserved.
7. Elvis Costello & the Roots, Wise Up Ghost (Blue Note)
Costello gets funky? Hard to believe, perhaps, but true. A marriage that seemed more than strange on paper turned out to be both natural and mutually beneficial in the recording studio.
6. The Flaming Lips, Peace Sword (Warner Bros.)
It’s a shame, really, that “Peace Sword” is, nominally at least, the soundtrack to the critically reviled science fiction film “Ender’s Game.” The Flaming Lips also released the excellent “The Terror” album this year, but of the two, “Peace Sword” is the stronger. It boasts some of the most gorgeous sounds the band and producer Dave Fridmann have ever laid to tape (or laptop, or whatever). And in “Is the Black At the End Good?” we have one of the most heart-rending ballads in the band’s history. Don’t be fooled - “Peace Sword” is much more a fully realized Flaming Lips album than it is a movie soundtrack.
5. Pearl Jam, Lightning Bolt (Republic Records)
Pearl Jam has turned out to be the gift from the grunge era that keeps on giving. A tight and polished collection, “Lightning Bolt” crackles with the energy of a Pearl Jam concert, and wears its punk and “classic rock” influences proudly on its sleeve. In singer Eddie Vedder, however, PJ has a man who is able to take the music in refreshing directions – both in terms of melody and lyric - at every turn. A band at the peak of its powers.
4. Thundercat, Apocalypse (Brainfeeder)
A virtuoso bassist, certainly, but with his second album, Thundercat proved himself to be so much more. Soul, funk, R&B and elements of ’70s pop commingled here with a force that hasn’t been felt since D’Angelo released “Voodoo.”
3. Snarky Puppy, Family Dinner (Ropeadope)
A band that cannot be easily classified, Snarky Puppy is a collective given to blurring the lines between harmonically sophisticated jazz and groove-oriented funk, soul and R&B. With a host of some of the finest jazz and soul singers extant showing up for “Dinner,” this album - tracked live in a theatre with no audience - makes a wholly joyful noise. It also makes it plain that most of the exciting music being made today is not happening anywhere near the mainstream.
2. David Bowie, The Next Day (Columbia)
Dropped from the sky seemingly from nowhere on Bowie’s birthday in January, “The Next Day” is so much better than anyone could’ve reasonably expected from Bowie, who for all intents and purposes, was in retirement. Keeping the creation of “The Next Day” a secret, ensuring that it would be one of his finest albums since the ’70s, refusing to tour to support it, and doing no interviews - all of these actions made Bowie a maverick of the modern age. Still. Incredible.
1. Steven Wilson, The Raven That Refused To Sing (and other Stories) (K-Scope)
The album was released in February, and immediately presented itself as the one to beat. In the end, no one did, though a few came close. Yes, this is progressive rock, but it’s more than that, too; Wilson is a wildly inventive songwriter and arranger with a keen eye for poetic detail and an ear well-tuned to cadences of sublimely dramatic effect. “The Raven” is part dreamy, part in-your-face virtuosity, and part heartbreaking lament. Because of Wilson’s work this year, no one can any longer rely on the weather-beaten claim, “They just don’t make albums like they used to any more.”
Yes. This happened. Unfortunately.
Three musical events that never should’ve taken place
1. Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke at the MTV VMA Awards Ceremony.
You saw it. You know you did. Bet you wish you could have that five minutes back, huh?
2. Kanye West declares himself a genius.
Kanye is the king of penning advertisements for himself. In this case, it was false advertising. True genius does not need to declare itself so. It simply is.
3. Britney Spears returns.
Yup. But the party was already over.