Traviud’s Top 25 of 2013

22 Dec

The Traviud top 25 has been a tradition at An Ocean of Noise for a handful of years now. Typically, my write-ups are obscenely long. This one isn’t much shorter, but if your favorite album wound up with only a handful of sentences (better than placing a bomb or a pair of scissors next to it anyway), rest assured that I liked it a lot anyway. I took great care in listening to and ranking these records so that this list could mean something to the reader. Regardless of their recency, I’ve heard every album on this list at least twice and some upwards of ten times, depending on their appeal and replay value. This list of 25 + 5 was culled from a selection of over 200 albums, so consider these to be in the 85th percentile of all releases this year.

I’d say the albums here are really good, but I can’t vouch for my own taste, so it’s possible that this list sucks as much as any other list. It probably does, to someone. But if I took that person into account, then I’m sure someone else would hate it instead. That’s just the way it is; hater men marry hater women and have hater kids.

25. Charli XCX – True Romance

charli-xcx-true-romance

Arguably the most flawed album on this list, but no less deserving of a spot, True Romance is also among the most unique and consistently enjoyable pop records of the year. Charli XCX’s sound is labeled “darkwave” by some (I’m not sure where the Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil influences are, personally), one can very clearly hear the Kate Bush in her voice and new romantic in her sound. It’s a bold, polished and surprisingly personal product that establishes her as one of the most exciting new prospects of 2013. It must be said that the album is dragged down by a handful of poor tracks, but the highs here are absolutely fantastic and make this record worth hearing for anyone with even a passing interest in the current state of pop music.

24. Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork

queens-of-the-stone-age-like-clockwork

As a jaded fan of this band, it took me a while to accept that a post-Oliveri Queens of the Stone Age was capable of a great record, but the consistency at play here is undeniable. Whereas 2007’s Era Vulgaris was hampered by some baffling lows, Like Clockwork is carried by great hooks, accessible song lengths and no shortage of fantastic riffs. I could take or leave the lyricism, but I’ve never really prized that in Queens and Josh Homme is in great voice here. I had a difficult time picking between some favorite hard rock records to fill this spot, but this is a compulsively listenable, high-quality record that should be celebrated and enjoyed.

23. These New Puritans – Field of Reeds

these-new-puritans-field-of-reeds

For anyone who has been following this band, Field of Reeds probably took some getting used to. Whereas These New Puritans’ earlier records were driven by rhythm and atonal melodies, this record is easily their most beautiful, if challenging in its own way. The songs are uniformly unstable, carried by woodwinds, pianos and Talk Talk-esque atmosphere. The arrangements are surprising and leave you with plenty to discover upon multiple listens; each track contains all sorts of interesting passageways and corridors to be explored. This is not the most immediate record on the list, but it’s among the most rewarding and adventurous.

22. Bill Callahan – Dream River

bill-callahan-dream-river

I’ve liked Bill Callahan’s solo work, but I’ve never really loved it. The offbeat lyricism present in his previous band Smog’s discography is seldom to be found and I find the music a bit too…Starbucks for my liking. In many ways, Dream River could be filed comfortably alongside his solo work, as it isn’t a huge leap forward from the more band-oriented Apocalypse, but the moment I heard the line “the only words I’ve said today are ‘beer’ and ‘thank you,’” I knew his personality had returned. The songwriting here is bizarre and riotously funny in spots, whereas the music is expansive and adventurous, reminding me of Joni Mitchell’s experimental mid-70s work. An awesome return to form.

21. Beyoncé – Beyoncé

Beyonce

With its mid-December release date, his album caused a big shake-up in the list, but I couldn’t deny a record of this many virtues a spot simply because I haven’t had as much time with it as the other’s. My expectations for Beyoncé were exceeded within minutes; Knowles in absolutely fantastic voice, engaging the listener with surprising and powerful uses of her voice, including loud bellows, soft coos and delicious harmonies. The production is a feast for the ears; complex, dark and endlessly fascinating. Even the lyrics take an impressive spike in quality, with Beyoncé all of a sudden unafraid of confronting all manner of female sexuality, as well as her own place in the world now that someone finally put a ring on it. The only real drawback of this album is its length; there are probably one or two tracks that could get axed, but otherwise, this is a massive leap forward and one of the year’s best R&B albums.

20. Laura Marling – Once I Was an Eagle

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I alluded to Joni Mitchell in my blurb on Bill Callahan and that comparison applies here as well. Because of their personal connection, I expected something closer to Mumford and Sons, but this album is on the opposite end of the spectrum; airy, subtle and carefully unfolding folk music with something of a concept behind it. This is a double album, but the duration flies by because Marling refuses to stay in one spot very long. Despite this, the album coheres remarkably well. Endlessly creative and instrumentally impressive.

19. Jon Hopkins – Immunity

jon hopkins

It’s impossible to argue this is anything less than the most acclaimed electronic release of the year. I happen to agree with the consensus. Hopkins uses momentum and the art/science of song arrangement expertly, as each track rises and falls in ways that maintain interest despite generous song lengths and a healthy dose of atmosphere. The real star here is his use of piano, however; “Breathe This Air” is perhaps his finest use of it and the song remains one of the most sublime of the year. I’ve spent more time with this album than any other electronic release this year and its perfect mix of heavy beats and gorgeous melody continues to captivate me.

18. Speedy Ortiz – Major Arcana

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For people who feel nostalgia for prototypical 1990s indie rock, this has been a terrific year. Speedy Ortiz instantly grabbed me with their jarring guitar work and wild vocals that remind one of Fiona Apple in a rock context. The production value is suitably raw but not in a way that does a disservice to their surprising use of melody; think Exile in Guyville without the actively difficult lyricism. This is an assured, fully-formed debut sporting a sound that the world needs a whole lot more of.

17. David Bowie – The Next Day

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The simple fact that this album exists made 2013 a memorable year for music. That it nearly tops Heathen, if not surpasses it is simply icing on the cake. This is the hardest Bowie has rocked since the 90s and it is generally in service to the music; this is a vibrant, exciting record and Bowie brings some great vocals and lyrics to the table. The production is a bit flat and the vocals are mixed rather poorly in spots, but beyond that one flaw, the songwriting is allowed to take control. This is an extremely consistent set of songs, with the peaks – “The Stars (Are out Tonight),” brilliant comeback single “Where Are We Now?” – standing tall with the very best of his late career output. Now tour. Please.

16. Rhye – Woman

rhye

Two points I want to get out the way early: 1) the lead singer is, in fact, a man and 2) this is the best Sade album since Love Deluxe. Initially, I was taken aback by the sound and feel of this record; it’s dreamy, romantic and very classy. Dig a little deeper and you begin to notice that the songwriting keeps up with the impressive aesthetic. Lead single “Open” is absolutely stellar, one of the best tracks of the year (the video is exceptional as well), but others, like “The Fall” shine nearly as brightly. Attractive yet surprisingly deep, this is an essential debut.

15. Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady

janelle

Loaded with charm and held together with prodigious talent, Monae’s The ArchAndroid was one of my favorite debuts in many years. This album doesn’t have the mindblowing variety of its predecessor, but it has twice the focus, which only means that she put her talent to work on putting together a supremely fun and cohesive sophomore product instead of showing us how many different genres she can tackle at once. This album lacks a track that hits as hard as “Cold War,” but it isn’t lacking great singles, and unlike its predecessor, it actually manages to sustain its momentum all the way through with no significant bumps in the road. The features are a joy, the concept is well integrated and there are no less than half a dozen must-listen tracks present here. To say I’m excited for the next part of the series is a gross understatement.

14. Goldfrapp – Tales of Us

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If you have been following the trajectory of Alison Goldfrapp’s career, this album may come as a shock. 2010’s Head First was a swan dive into the world of retro synth pop; Tales of Us, its follow-up, is the complete opposite. Even if you haven’t heard a Goldfrapp album in a while, this ghostly record, with its dearth of percussion and emphasis on vocals would likely take you by surprise. Nonetheless, it was a necessary and successful risk. Every song here is supremely well crafted and Goldfrapp’s voice is exceptional here, carrying the album with grace. The instrumentation is minimal but implemented well and seldom gets in the way of the storytelling. This is a unique record in her discography and in the year as a whole. It’s also one of the best.

13. Cut Copy – Free Your Mind

cut copy

Let’s get it out of the way: I’m a huge Cut Copy fanboy and consider In Ghost Colours one of the best albums ever. There are certain expectations I had for its follow-up, Zonoscope, which fell short in my opinion, as well as the opinion of many others. It wasn’t awful, but it got away from the immediate, visceral energy of its predecessor. Free Your Mind, while sounding absolutely nothing like In Ghost Colours returns some of that energy, sounding very much like a live performance with its skillful use of transitions and momentum. This album is influenced by late 80s and early 90s house music and their portrayal is extremely convincing. I don’t know where they’re going to go from here, but I’m once again very excited to find out.

12. Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt

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Another in a line of great female-fronted singer-songwriter albums that call back to the 90s, this one is arguably the best and certainly the most loveable. Indie pop is full of albums like this, but its complementary production and, most importantly, excellent songwriting carry it to the top of the peak. Katie Crutchfield has a very sweet, likable voice and she absolutely sells every last one of these songs with her humble yet passionate delivery. This album is loaded with delicious, bite-size pop and upon returning to it, I often find myself able to remember what I loved about it last time while finding a new highlight during the current listen.

11. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels

run the jewels

Run the Jewels is comprised of Killer Mike and El-P, two hip hop stalwarts in their late 30s that have, through their partnership, not only breathed new life into their careers but into hip hop as a whole. Whereas their previous album R.A.P. Music was bolstered by thoughtful, socially-conscious lyricism, this album is 100% hard-hitting beats and lyrics. It’s like a soundtrack to roid rage. And that’s not an insult. For 35 minutes, you can feel like the most powerful man on earth, free of charge. This album is a blast, very possibly the most fun that can be had listening to a 2013 hip hop album, and, again, it’s free, so you have no excuse not to listen to it immediately.

10. Sigur Rós – Kveikur

sigur ros

My Sigur Ros fandom has waxed and waned over the years, perhaps reaching its lowest point with last year’s Valtari. Something about the band releasing a more ambient release sounded superficially pleasing, but I must have forgotten that this band lives and dies based on their ability to deliver epic crescendos. So, with its follow-up, the band chose to make arguably their most accessible release since Takk, all while introducing some new elements to their sound. This is the heaviest Sigur Ros album to date and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that; the band uses distortion wisely and retains their skill for building up sonic climaxes. Meanwhile, there are truly gorgeous melodies to be found where you least expect them. And at 48 minutes, this album is the shortest of their career, which turns out to suit the music perfectly. This is just the jolt that the band and its fanbase needed.

9. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You

neko case

If you heard her last album, Middle Cyclone, you aren’t going to be surprised by this one; like its predecessor, it’s pop-oriented and radio-friendly, more so than her first two albums as a solo act. The important difference is that this one is more aggressive and assured. I would argue that this a harder, more energetic album both vocally and instrumentally than any she has released to date, which makes it feel essential. Highlights are plentiful and lowlights are nonexistent. She even holds off on the 20 minute ambient cricket tracks this time, which instantly brings her game up further. Neko Case hasn’t released a bad album yet and I don’t expect her to release one any time soon, but I did not expect her to actually improve her formula.

8. No Joy – Wait to Pleasure

no joy

The last five years have had no shortage of great albums influenced by The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. Ironically, in a year that contained the release of My Bloody Valentine’s first album since the early 90s, there wasn’t a lot of great shoegaze to be heard. Thankfully, Wait to Pleasure could stand up with any of the great albums in the genre. This album strikes the ideal balance between beauty and brutality; it rocks hard and heavy in spots, but there are also sublime tracks like “Lunar Phobia” that reveal a surprising Cocteau Twins influence, while the band dips into breezy jangle pop elsewhere; it’s this skillful duality that puts this very good album over the top.

7. The Flaming Lips – The Terror

the terror

After 2006’s At War with the Mystics, I was beginning to worry that The Flaming Lips’ deliriously fun shtick was going to someday grow dull. Apparently, the band felt the same. In stark contrast to their gummy-enshrouded antics, their recent music has celebrated the dark side of 70s prog and Krautrock, culminating in The Terror, their bleakest release to date. Recorded in the wake of a breakup, the album’s depressing, hopeless lyricism is veiled in thick layers of fuzz and electronic sounds of a particularly unmusical nature. So what’s the appeal? Despite the seemingly willful attempt to dodge such realities, there is beauty to be found all over this record. Wayne Coyne’s voice is at its most defeated, which means his best quality as a singer – his palpable emotion – is brought to the fore. The lyrics are some of his best in years and the production (hot mastering aside) is perfect. This is very much unlike any experience you’ll have with music this year and should not be missed.

6. Thee Oh Sees – Floating Coffin

Thee-Oh-Sees-Floating-Coffin

I’ve liked Thee Oh Sees for quite some time and I think they’re a tremendous live act, but I can’t deny that their albums are a bit spotty; a common fate for prolific bands. Floating Coffin, however, is one of their most consistent and melodically adventurous records to date. The album starts with a bang, instantly reminding you of the appeal of air guitar, but it doesn’t spin its wheels for 40 minutes like so many garage rock records. “No Spell” is a major highlight for me, an unstoppable stampede of a track that wins over the listener through sheer momentum, while “Minotaur” is one of the band’s prettiest and most versatile moments. Above all, it’s simply very difficult to find any weakness in this record, which makes it a revelation for the band.

5. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

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Having fallen in love with this band through 2007’s Boxer, it seems a bit odd that I would pine for The National’s edgier early material, but I can’t deny that I do; while I loved a number of tracks on their last album, High Violet, the product as a whole felt a bit washed out, colorless and homogeneous. As far as the production is concerned, Trouble Will Find Me isn’t all that different, which is perhaps the only complaint I can levy against it. As far as the songwriting is concerned, this is one of the band’s most versatile and creative releases in some time, indulging in straightforward rock (“Sea of Love”), off-kilter piano balladry (“Pink Rabbits”) and swooning pop (“This Is the Last Time”). Best of all, even when the band settles into second gear on “Demons” and “Graceless,” they sound fantastic thanks to Matt Berninger’s terrific lyrics, which are at their most direct and relatable here. I do hope they change things up a bit next time, but this album is skillfully crafted and undeniably touching.

4. Kanye West – Yeezus

Yeezus

Much like the man that created it, Yeezus is one of the most simultaneously acclaimed and reviled albums of the year. It’s not an enviable task, but this oddball of a record was charged with following up arguably the most beloved hip hop record of the decade thus far, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and, by avoiding the task in almost every way, it succeeds. The album is wild, aggressive, willfully difficult and very, very fun, which is exactly what you aren’t expecting from the stone-faced West. Think of this album as a bachelor party for the soon-to-be wed Kanye West; its braggadocio, anger and heady, drill-influenced beats are the perfect soundtrack for the lifestyle he was aware was about to come to an end as he began the hectic recording sessions for the album. This is Kanye at his giddiest and most confident, completely unafraid to leave loose ends hanging while venturing into territory he had never traversed. But most importantly, it’s just a lot of fun.

3. Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Daze

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2011’s Smoke Ring for My Halo was one of my biggest surprises of the year, so my expectations for this album were suitably high, particularly after the release of the pseudo-title track, which remains one of the finest songs of the year. Thankfully, the rest of this album is nearly as exceptional. Its album title is an entirely accurate description of the album’s sound; rocking yet distant, psychedelic yet straightforward, it’s the perfect soundtrack to a quiet summer afternoon, though I wouldn’t want to go a whole season without hearing some of these tracks. Highlights were easier to pick out before I had fallen in love with nearly everything here, but I can still vouch for that closing trio above all. Another exceptional album in an increasingly impressive discography.

2. My Bloody Valentine – m b v

My-Bloody-Valentine-2.13.2013review

Along with The Next Day, the improbability of MBV’s release following 22 years of near-silence makes 2013 one of the great years for comebacks in quite some time. I would argue this album is even better than the Next Day and one of the most vital shoegaze releases in years. It’s easy for me to say I like this album, considering it sounds a great deal like its dreamy yet biting predecessor, but listen closer and you begin to notice how skillfully this album is produced and sequenced. The album is casually split into trios; the first will sound very familiar to fans, the second will lull them into a state of relaxation and complacency and the third will completely shatter all previously established expectations for the band. Every section has its highlights and virtues, but the way they work together is the true key behind the album’s brilliance. Kevin Shields cares about making Albums and this one happens to be nearly as cohesive and comprehensive a picture of his pioneering band as Loveless was all those years ago.

1. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away

Push-The-Sky-Away

Nick Cave albums typically have one of two modes: 1) vaguely terrifying gothic post punk or 2) heartbreaking, piano-driven balladry. Push the Sky Away does something a bit different by implementing both sides of the man’s personality while sounding nothing like either. This is the airiest, softest and most atmospheric album he’s ever released, yet it remains troubling in its own regard thanks to some of Cave’s most bizarre, impressionistic lyricism to date and the presence of ominous slow burners like “Jubilee Street” and “Higgs Boson Blues” that boast masterful arrangements and add necessary grit to an otherwise lovely yet potentially weightless album. The rest of the tracks are as beautiful as anything he’s ever written, but never betray even the smallest drop of sentimentality. “Wide Lovely Eyes” is heart-stoppingly beautiful, but the track is too propulsive and gripping to let you get caught up in how sweet it is. The feel of this album is ghostly and elusive, while the content makes terrific use of that atmosphere instead of simply using it as a crutch. Equally impressive is that he managed to introduce a new wrinkle into his sound while entering his fourth decade.

Honorable mentions:

James Holden – The Inheritors

inheritors

I love this record because of its unwillingness to settle for present-day expectations. While there have been an impressive number of high quality electronic releases this year, The Inheritors stands out by sounding about 30 years older than its peers. Drenched in chilly analog synths and bolstered by Krautrock momentum, James Holden made an exciting, fresh progressive-electronic record dotted with more standouts than any other electronic release this year.

Washed Out – Paracosm

Paracosm

Chillwave sees new life every time Washed Out returns with a new record. This one is dreamier and chiller than its predecessor, marked by long stretches of unabashed beauty and layers of warm synths. Fewer notable standouts than Within and Without, but its biggest standout, “All I Know,” ranks among the year’s finest tracks. The release date for this record did a disservice to it, somewhat, as summer was nearly over. I look forward to spending more time with this record in the coming year.

Yo La Tengo – Fade

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The fact that these guys continue to churn out records of this quality in the third decade of their career never ceases to amaze me. Fade ranks among the band’s most sublime records – not unlike the band’s overlooked Summer Sun in tone – and while it seems at first to be the picture of middle age complacency, the melodies find their way to you eventually.

Torres – Torres

torres

There are several heart-wrenching, female-fronted rock records on this list, but this one probably hurts the most. There’s real pain evident in Torres’ vocals and her lyrics cut to the quick. Perhaps that’s why this record didn’t make the list proper; it’s difficult and slightly embarrassing to find yourself in an emotional state ideal for this record, but it’s at the top of the heap if you fall that far.

The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Whenever, If Ever

whenever, if ever

One of this year’s best debuts. It hits that necessary sweet spot between jubilant indie rock – a la Los Campesinos – and the soaring emotional catharsis of post-rock. Though Gareth Campesinos himself decried the genre, the two sounds gel ideally, maintaining momentum while introducing necessary drama to the proceedings.

Top 25 songs:

1. Arcade Fire – It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)

2. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Jubilee Street

3. Danny Brown – Lonely

4. Charli XCX – Nuclear Seasons

5. The National – This Is The Last Time

6. Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Day

7. David Bowie – Where Are We Now?

8. Rhye – Open

9. Kanye West – Blood on the Leaves

10. Waxahatchee – Coast to Coast

11. Sky Ferreira – 24 Hours

12. Sigur Ros – Brennisteinn

13. Run the Jewels – Get It

14. Washed Out – All I Know

15. Yuck – Rebirth

16. No Joy – Lunar Phobia

17. Los Campesinos! – Avocado, Baby

18. Pusha T – Numbers on the Boards

19. Wild Nothing – A Dancing Shell

20. Janelle Monae – Primetime

21. My Bloody Valentine – In Another Way

22. The World Is a Beautiful Place and I am No Longer Afraid to Die – Getting Sodas

23. Neko Case – Ragtime

24. Tyler, The Creator – Answer

25. Vampire Weekend – Hannah Hunt

Here are the consolation categories:

Best new artist: Rhye

Best EP: Annie – A&R EP

Best compilation: Italians Do It Better – After Dark 2

Most improved artist: Vampire Weekend

Most disappointing album: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Mosquito

Worst album: Fall Out Boy – Save Rock and Roll

Sorry to get a bit personal for a moment, but here are my ten favorite albums that I discovered in 2013 that were not released in the calendar year:

  1. Laura Nyro – New York Tendaberry
  2. Millie Jackson – Caught Up
  3. Red Temple Spirits – Dancing to Restore an Eclipsed Moon
  4. Souls of Mischief – 93 ‘Til Infinity
  5. Rowland S. Howard – Teenage Snuff Film
  6. David Axelrod – Song of Innocence
  7. Little Brother – The Minstrel Show
  8. The Van Pelt – Sultans of Sentiment
  9. Akira Yamaoka – Silent Hill 3: Original Soundtrack
  10. Prince Paul – A Prince Among Thieves

And I guess that’s it. 2014 will instantly make us forget 2013 after Dr. Dre and The Avalanches drop their sure-fire classics, so I probably shouldn’t have put so much effort into this. Thanks for reading, assuming you did. But you probably didn’t. I bet you feel terrible now, you prick.

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