Machinedrum/ Vapor City

Rosetta/ The Anaesthete

Death Grips/ Government Plates

Flaming Lips/ The Terror

Chelsea Wolfe/ Pain Is Beauty

#25: Janelle Monae/ The Electric Lady


For my money, the conversation regarding who possesses the best pure singing voice in R&B today need go no further than Janelle Monae. On her sophomore album, Monae combines her flawless pitch with an inventive grasp of musical genres spanning soul, hip hop, motown and cocktail lounge jazz. While a bit overstuffed with marquee guest performances that lean a bit too theatrical, and perhaps a bit lacking in continuity due to some confusing radio interludes that fail to bring The Electric Lady together as full blown concept album, there are still tons of great moments here. The obvious highlight is “Dance Apocalyptic”, a wild, addictive, action-packed boogie that comes off carefree as can be thanks to Monae’s nonchalant shrieks in between breaks. But for all the uptempo dance music to enjoy and discover on tracks like “Q.U.E.E.N.”, “Ghetto Woman” and the title track, she delivers her best material on more emotionally revealing, stripped down numbers like “It’s Code” and “Victory.” Both are slower, more deliberate bass heavy numbers, with the former showcasing the type of bright lounge bar flutter that created highlights like “Neon Valley Street” on  her debut, while the latter arguably boasts her most impressive, soaring vocal moment on the album as she delivers wisdom beyond her years, “To be victorious/ you must find glory in the little things.”

#24: Camera Obscura/ Desire Lines


Tracyanne Campell’s tender vocals have always lended themselves to the bittersweet, but on the follow-up to 2009’s fantastic My Maudlin Career, Camera Obscura’s catchy chamber pop style seems especially break-up worthy. Even upbeat songs like the waltzing “I Missed Your Party” and “New Year’s Resolution” are oozing with regret, while uber-melancholy highlight “Fifth In Line to the Throne” doesn’t waste any time getting straight to the point as Campbell pleads “If you want me to leave/ Then I’ll go/ If you want me to stay/ Let it show.” It’s a remarkably effective line for its overall simplicity, but then again, that’s always been the strength of this band. While they aren’t taking many risks or breaking any new ground here, Camera Obscura remains the type of artist that seems incapable of writing a song that would be considered disposable or unworthy of remembering. The lovely horns on proper opener “This Is Love (Feels Alright) as well as the foot-stomping guitar on “Do It Again” serve to balance out what otherwise might be an album too one-dimensional and geared towards sentimental mopiness, while penultimate track “Break It To You Gently” showcases all the highs and lows that make Camera Obscura the great band that it is.

#23: Chvrches/ The Bones of What You Believe


You can take your time citing the obvious range of influences surrounding the sound on this highly anticipated debut. While never reaching to spooky depths of Purity Ring’s electropop, matching the pure granduer of an M83 crescendo or duplicating the all-encompassing dance beats of Cut Copy’s best work, there is no denying the exciting sonic elements being employed here. The overall sound seems decidedly poppy, but reveals layers of complexity with repeated listens. The album starts with a bang as “The Mother We Share” opens with fluttering vocal samples, blazing blasts of synth and the comfortingly sweet vocals of Lauren Mayberry, showing off a vague trace of her Scottish accent. Elsewhere, the neon-tinged brightness of the uptempo “Gun” comes off as flashy rather than annoying thanks to its pacing and execution, while highlight and pop gem “Recover” relies upon a simple structure but blows it to smithereens with smartly positioned breaks and tone changes. For all of its success with its uptempo arrangements, it is arguably the more understated tracks that saves The Bones of What You Believe from becoming too redundant. “Tether” is an impressive example of a structural build, as Mayberry’s downtempo vocals create a soft tension that eventually, albeit obviously, explode into a bright-lit arena style orchestral crescendo that would make M83 proud. “By The Throat” is gripping for the vulnerability shown in her shaking vocals, her best performance on the record in my opinion, and for the effective play-between with bandmate Martin Doherty. That type of cliche, just like an album full of poppy synth tunes, isn’t easy to pull off well.

#22: Forest Swords/ Engravings


One of the year’s most striking stand-alone records from a genre standpoint came from U.K producer Matt Barnes, whose Forest Swords project gears heavy on the ambiance and light on the vocals, the latter of which find their closest similarities to the sounds an artist like Burial employs over vastly different soundscapes. Opener “Ljoss” features eerie guitar, ghostly vocal samples and cracking percussion, presumably all emanating from a nearby dungeon, and the tone is immediately set. The music itself depends heavily on electronic loops and layered instrumentation ranging from guitar to strings and woodwinds, and doesn’t so much come off as evil as it does ominous and foreboding; the overriding theme I extract from this entire record is that things aren’t very good right now and the worst is yet to come. The very best examples of this come on “Irby Tremor” with its harrowing guitar line and subtle bass riff that combine brilliantly with discordant cello strings, and on the haunting, otherworldly electronic harp and tribal drum beats that run through stunning highlight “The Weight of Gold.” The death march of the slowly building guitar driven “The Plumes” serves as a perfect setup track for the fascinating eight-minute closer “Friend You Will Never Learn” and its remarkably textured battle march percussion, fluttering synth spasms, electonic piano, subterranean vocal samples and steady bassline- there’s almost too much going on here to even grasp on first listen. This is a record for the dark.

#21: Baths/ Obsidian


Will Wiesenfeld’s sophomore production as Baths delivers solid electronica reminiscent of The Notwist, both vocally and sonically, or even a darker, more tormented version of The Postal Service. Opener “Worsening” is awash with layers of lush electronic sound and ethereal vocals throughout its inventively constructed time signature- an immediately engaging and attention-grabbing tone setter and statement piece. Obsidian is far from shy lyrically and Wiesenfeld’s candidness and overall eccentricity can often become a bit of a distraction on tracks like the repetitively wearing and slightly annoying “Incompatible”, but his best moments here are delivered with a certain subletly and vulnerability that override his missteps. “Miasma Sky” rolls along smoothly beneath a straightforward loop groove in one of the few major-key moments here, while the lovely piano tune “Ironworks” demonstrates Wiesenfeld’s range as both a musician and a vocalist. There’s structural innovation on “No Past Lives”, which alternates between a playful keyboard riff and a bass-heavy, foreboding beat that builds upon itself frame by frame, but it’s a song like penultimate track “Earth Death” that really takes this effort to another level. A certified banger and virtual metal track wrapped in the guise of electronica, its forceful rolling percussion, distorted guitar and overwhelming tone of apathy dares the listener to “Come kill me/ I seem so little.”  I wasn’t completely sold on Wiesenfeld’s sincerity after the first few listens of Obsidian, but seeing him live in San Francisco this summer made me a firm believer; he feels and emotes every note. This is an essential and timely record.

#20: Dirty Beaches/ Drifters- Love Is the Devil


No other collection of music in 2013 created such a distinct mood and atmosphere as Alex Zhang Hungtai of Dirty Beaches on his double album Drifters/Love Is The Devil. While the vast stylistic contrast between the two pieces of the album hurts the continuity a bit and comes off feeling slightly overlong, there’s no denying that it’s an impressive feat that this album even works at all with that structure. On the first half of the record, tracks like standout “I Dream In Neon” are absolutely dripping in darkness and sludge, as Hungtai’s creepily monotone vocals underscore a vibe that is decidedly unsettling. The heavily industrial, militaristic beat on “Casino Lisboa” picks up a gorgeous synth line that comes off like a glimpse of sunlight striving to enter the fray while Hungtai chants like a psychotic cult leader, but nothing on the album’s first half comes off as eerily as “Elli.” The steady synth loop slowly picks up additional musical elements that create a track here that is stunning for its all its obsessive nonchalance and subtle beauty. “Mirage Hall” weaves and builds behind arguably the most impressively composed percussion of all, and creates a suffocating tension as Hungtai’s inaudible vocals come off like a torturted prisoner pleading for release. The back half doesn’t quite match the first in my opinion, focusing on more textural and less immediate structures, but manages to capture attention nonetheless. If Drifters comes off as harrowing, the more ambient and patience-demanding Love Is The Devil contrasts that with its vibes of heartbreak and sadness. Songs like “Alone on the Danube River” and  “Like the Ocean We Part” convey a sense of hopelessness and isolation that is difficult to stomach, and in their conclusions don’t so much “end” as they simply cease to be. Taken separately, both sides stand alone well; when taken as a whole, this is an ambitious and challenging combination of ideas.

#19: Disclosure/ Settle


The debut album from brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence of Surrey, aged 21 and 18 respectively, is impressive for its sheer scope, not to mention its remarkably polished production quality. This is a dance record for sure, but it is an intelligent one in terms of both pacing and execution- it’s the dance record of the year and the best offering from that genre in recent memory. Opener “When A Fire Starts To Burn” served as somewhat of a summer anthem, building steadily and forcefully behind the sampled vocals of a Baptist preacher. After that, highlights abound, beginning with the pulsating synths and purring melodic undertones of “Latch” all the way to the more understated lounge bar bass on suave closer “Help Me Lose My Mind.” Guest performers are scattered throughout the record, providing breadth and diversity and helping to carry the well executed beats. Most effective are Edward Mcfarland lending lead vocals to airy highlight “Defeated No More”, while Aluna George powers the steady drive and punching synth of “White Noise” and the incomparable Jessie Ware dominates the murky, discordant echoes of “Confess To Me.” The club-ready dance tracks are straightforward and to the point as steady techno beats carry “Stimulation” and “Grab Her”, although at 60 minutes in length, the house tracks are arguably the only misteps on Settle, as songs like “F For You” and “Voices” lack the originality of the best moments here and feel wearing and repetitive in the middle. Still, this is a head-turning effort from a duo who, to avoid the use of the term “wise”, clearly have an innovative grasp on how dance music is supposed to sound in 2013, and one that well outweighs their years.

#18: Savages/ Silence Yourself


The hype surrounding the debut album from these female post-punk rockers was so intense that Silence Yourself ran the risk of coming off as a massive angst-driven cliche. An effective debut in the same way that Sleigh Bells’ Treats was, honesty and raw power elevate this effort from Savages, a relentless and infinitely genuine album that draws from the dark echoes of bands like Joy Division. As any great punk album should, Silence Yourself plays out with tightly packaged music that seems to roll from one track to the next without leaving much time to catch your breath. Rollicking percussion and distorted guitars serve as the backdrop for charismatic lead singer Jehnny Beth’s tormented vibrato vocals. A memorable guitar riff permeates opener “Shut Up” while a distorted lead guitar and paranoid bassline tantalize “Strife.” There’s a lovely change of pace on the slowed-to-a-crawl spaciousness and hopelessness of the dark ballad “Waiting For A Sign”, where the soft drum echo and underground bassline beckon a cameo from Ian Curtis most of all. Beth is literally shrieking and gasping for air on highlight and full-fledged freakout track “Husbands”, a not-so-subtle affront to the institution of marriage itself and an effective feminist battle cry, which appearently, is a thing. None of that is to say that there aren’t moments here that ring incredibly catchy and relatable; take the immediately memorable opening riff of “She Will” and notice how it devolves into a lullaby guitar line through the verse before building and collapsing back upon itself as the drums kick in with inpenetrable authority. This album leaves very little room for doubt, but my seeing Savages live at Pitchfork this past July confirmed the intensity alluded to here on this impressive debut, as Beth’s piercing eyes delivered every one of these songs with a seriousness unlike what you may be accustomed to seeing at an outdoor music festival.

#17: Kurt Vile/ Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze


For those less enamored by all of the exciting innovations going on in the world of music today and craving a good old fashioned rock and roll record that screams Americana, you found it this year with Kurt Vile and his sophomore full length. And even as such, this is not a rock record that doesn’t take risks- how many of those can you recall that open with an epic nine and half minute song like this one does? A spin off of the album title, “Wakin’ On A Pretty Day” simply glides along for that timespan with such effortlessness and precision that that we don’t even notice how much time has elapsed. Relaxing enough to fade into the background yet still showcasing enough punch to keep his listeners’ interest, the opening track serves to set the tone for an album’s worth of similarly balanced music. There’s something for everyone here, from the accessible, catchy, immediately memorable riffs on “KV Crimes”, “Never Run Away” and “Shame Chamber” to the more adventurous and unconventional structures of “Was All Talk” and “Girl Called Alex.” What is most interesting about this music is the sense of relaxation it offers; Vile seems to content to move along at a leisurely pace on these songs without much attention to building into crescendos, and it is to the album’s credit that despite this stylistic choice that none of these songs seem to wear or become repetitive, with the possible exception of centerpiece “Too Hard.” I spent many an afternoon on my balcony in Montalcino this past April overlooking the hills of Tuscany and sipping wine while playing this album on repeat, a great way to waste a day away indeed.

#16: The National/ Trouble Will Find Me


At this point in their career, The National have to work to avoid coming off like those old guys who are trying to recapture their prior magic, and on Trouble Will Find Me, despite a bit of mopiness that at its worst might be mistaken for elevator music (rather than strangers), they succeed for the most part. There’s signs of new musical ideas right off the bat, as both of the first two tracks “I Should Live In Salt” and “Demons” make use of strangely constructed time signatures, which make the listener work a bit for the payoff. The National have used this tactic before to open albums on songs like “Fake Empire”, but the vast differences in sound between these two tracks- the former a regretful ballad with lead singer Matt Berninger singing in falsetto, the latter a patient self-indictment showing off his deep baratone- demonstrate that the band has no interest in repeating old tricks. “Don’t Swallow The Cap” provides an early highlight and builds upon the sort of rainy-walk-in-the-city melancholy established on prior classics like “Brainy” as Berninger despairs in a nonchalant, virtual monotone “I have only two emotions/ Carefeul fear and dead devotion/ I can’t get the balance right/ Throw my marbles in the fight.” The National have always been gloomy, but songs like “Fireproof” and “Slipped” seem to take the hopelesness to a new level, which isn’t altogether becoming, and Berninger’s voice should NEVER sound the way it does on the overwrought, Bono-imitating “Heavenfaced”, but luckily there is plenty of great material here to offset the missteps. The triumphant “Sea of Love” sticks out like a sore thumb with its double-time drumming and playful call and response vocals “Tell me how to reach you/ What did Harvard teach you”, while penultimate track “Pink Rabbits” utilizes a gorgeous piano backbone and builds in the effortless manner that The National’s best heartbreak-worthy music does, as Beringer laments “You said it would be painless/ It wasn’t that at all.”

#15 Phosphorescent/ Muchacho


Matthew Houck spent a year in a small rural town in Mexico and while taking a hiatus from life, crafted the pieces of what was to become a refined and personal career-topper of an album as Phosphorescent. Muchacho is intriguing not only on the surface for the way it combines Huock’s classic folk rock sound with elements of electronic synth, but also for how it deftly communicates this time of isolation, reflection and redemption in a way that demonstrates shades of an unintentional concept album, the same way that Bon Iver’s For Emma Forever Ago did. But more than the backstory, it’s the underlying layers- his fragile, cracking vocals and warm, rich production- that elevate Muchacho to one of the year’s best albums.  The stunning, indelible “Song For Zula” provides a massive highlight early on with its radiating, dream-like synth bounce and electronic violin string composition that combine with his powerfully quaking vocal delivery on lines like “Yeah then I saw love/ Disfigure me/ Into something I am not recognizing.” There’s still room for good old-fashioned open-road driving music on the howling wolf chorus line of “The Quotidian Beasts” and the gentle western guitar twang that picks up layers of piano, fiddle and horns on “Terror In the Canyons.” And, pay attention to how even on the melancholic title track, Huock manages to uncover a glimmer of optimism within his regret, singing in a fractured, Dylan-esque tone, “Like the shepherd to the lamb/ Like the wave onto the land/ I’ll fix myself up/ To come and be with you.” Instead of a sad record, which this easily could have been given the thematic material at hand, Huock has delivered one that is instead brimming with hope.

#14: Boards of Canada/ Tomorrow’s Harvest


It’s been nearly a decade since the last release from these Scottish pioneers of electronic music, and upon their return they deliver a record that is even more desolate and abstract than usual.  There are no gimmicks whatsoever to be found this time around, but rather meticulous attention to detail and carefully constructed soundscapes that don’t so much grab your attention as they demand it. The result is a cold, distant and bleak production that is better understood when taken as a whole to focus upon the sum of its parts rather than on its individual tracks. Boards of Canada have never been deliberate in their pacing, and such is the case here, as interspaced set-up tracks serve to build dread and tension for eventual release on early highlights like “Reach For The Dead”, “Cold Earth”, “Sick Times”, helping them to blend into the work as a whole. While the majority of the album draws upon dark, paranoia-inducing synths, there’s actually still moments of atmospheric beauty on “Jacquard Causeway” and the penultimate bruisier “Come To Dust”, which add diversity and range to this work. For an album that requires so much patience to fully appreciate, it certainly helps that the back half is absolutely gripping. “Nothing Is Real” demonstrates an addictively repetitive structure and some of the most effective snythesized percussion present here, while “New Seeds” is more dependent on building behind its layered electronic chimes and fluttering, frantic synth lines into a softly executed coda, which succeeds admirably as it ends like a regretful whimper. It’s hard to say where Tomorrow’s Harvest stacks up against the band’s entire catalog, as no single track sticks out here as immediately memorable the way that “Aquarius” and “Roygbiv” did on Music Has The Right To Children or “1969” did on Geogaddi, but the fact that given that reality it is still such a satisfying listen makes it arguably even more haunting.

#13: The Field/ Cupid’s Head


Axel Wilner became a household name following 2007’s smashing electronic epic From Here We Go Sublime, and with his third release since that masterpiece, has refined his art with delicate precision. Only six tracks long and as easy to listen through in one sitting than anything he’s ever done, Cupid’s Head continues to utilize Wilner’s obsession over repetitive loops that gradually and patiently build into songs of depth and power, but it’s a more intense and detail-oriented album than his last (Looping State Of Mind), if falling a bit short of topping his masterpiece. Opener “They Won’t See Me” is dark, ominous and layered, building slowly into buzzing synths reminiscent of a Fuck Buttons song. It doesn’t take long for the sprawling “Black Sea” to get moving forcefully, picking up subtle elements to complement its pounding electronic beat until a sudden moment when the tone completely shifts as the tension releases, and it is one of the darkest, most downright terrifying tempo changes in The Field’s entire catalog. But, what seems to set up as a darker effort after the first two tracks turns more ethereal over the rest of its run time. Both “A Guided Tour” and the title track show off an airy, carefree techno vibe, the former with bursts of lifted, distorted bass and the latter demonstrating a steady vocal loop that never lets up. Another more showstopping vocal loop is used to create the overwhelming moodiness of “No No…”, a track that impressively balances elements of both beauty and paranoia. If there’s a complaint to be had here it is still that The Field’s style still depends so primarily on repetition, and this is never more evident than on closing track “20 Seconds of Affection”, but the rewards on Cupid’s Head lay in the exquisite details.

#12: Youth Lagoon/ Wondrous Bughouse


Trevor Powers isn’t much to look at, but the expansion of his sound on this sophomore effort compared to the lo-fi slow build structures he created on debut The Year of Hibernation most certainly merits attention. Wondrous Bughouse is a surprising step forward in fact, as Powers drapes these ten tracks in rich, lush layers of sound, and it just feels a lot bigger than his debut. The addition of Ben H. Allen of Animal Collective fame to the production credits definitely has had an impact on the sonic evolution, but Powers’ vocals have also morphed from the soft whisper used on Hibernation into a controlling, powerful nasal force that is reminiscent of Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue. No time is wasted as the first proper track is the awe-inspiring “Mute”, which is structured as two songs within one. Opening with big, melodic chimes and straightforward vocals, it shifts completely into a gorgeous chorus punctuated by its walls of soaring, feedback-laden reverb, a striking contrast indeed. There’s a decidedly psychedlic tone to songs like “The Pelican Man”, which comes off somewhat like a new-era “I Am The Walrus”, and the circus-horror of “Attic Doctor”, but the bigger thrills come on the album’s back half. “Dropla” seems to bounce along nonchalantly over its verses as Powers repeats “You’ll never die” incessantly, breaking into more welcome fuzzed out distortion through its bridge, but like all of his best songs do, eventually ends up building up to a point where it completely collapses back upon itself in a haze of synthesized string instrumentation. But nothing that comes before it can fully prepare us for “Raspberry Cane”, which is basically a perfectly constructed song. Powers’ voice cracks as the song opens, eventually picking up sweeping electronic horns to complement its subtle keyboard melody. There’s impressive restraint in the patience shown before another massive tonal shift into the coda, as swirling reverb resonates and Powers strains to hit notes through the emotional chorus, coming back full circle as it concludes. It’s amazing how much the two obvious highlights here, “Mute” and “Raspberry Cane”, tower over even the very best tracks on Hibernation, and it’s also notable how the opening and closing tracks, both instrumentals, serve as bookends adding length, depth and substance.

#11: Jon Hopkins/ Immunity


In a year when so many purely instrumental electronic albums stood out and made names for themselves, arguably none were as diverse as this unexpected effort from UK producer Jon Hopkins in his fourth full length. The twilight chill of opener “We Disappear” serves as a mere warm-up track and tone setter for the array of exciting material beneath it. Songs like “We Disappear” and “Collider’ take a page from the book of The Field, building steady tension between repetitive loops and propulsive techno beats, yet carry a unique tone that is all their own, landing somewhere in limbo between the darkest hour of night and the very first sunbeam of the morning. Providing contrast are more atmospheric songs like “Breathe This Air”, which breaks down into a single piano loop and picks up punching synth jabs, and “Abandon Window”, a spacious, airy track that creates ambient atmosphere behind its subdued piano melody, in stark contrast to the dance-floor ready tunes early on. Speaking of pianos, the title track closes this album with arguably the very best employment of that instrument of all, combining immaculate production detail with the most gorgeous composition on the entire record, and adding the only semblance of a real vocal track here with haunting results; it’s an emotional conclusion, but a soothing one.  The relaxing “Form By Firelight” gently adds layers and texture to its streamlined, high pitched arpeggio, while “Sun Harmonics”, the longest track here at nearly twelve minutes, alternates between the sort of light-on-its-feet, sun-drenched electronica typical of a Caribou track and harder, funkier beats that scream beach party all the way. You can practically feel the waves crashing at your feet as the track slows down through its drawn out four minute coda.  Taken in full, this is all far too pretty to be categorized as either happy or sad, either bright or dark.

#10: Sigur Ros/ Kveikur


When Sigur Ros began to describe their upcoming release as “dark and aggressive”, it was music to the collective ears of many of their old school fans, who believed the band needed a change of direction following the sleep-inducing lull of Valtari and the well-executed but overly giddy Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust. While the idea of a full-fledged Sigur Ros metal album doesn’t come completely to fruition on Kveikur, the album can certainly be viewed as a truce between an exciting new direction of ideas combined with some of their best old tricks revisited, ultimately resulting in some much needed edge and re-invigoration for the Icelandic shoegazers. “Brennisteinn” is, for my money, the very best opening track on any album this year, and makes good on that “dark and aggressive” promise right off the bat. Sigur Ros’ best music has always been highly compositional and chilly, and shares characteristics with metal as such, but “Brennisteinn” enters a vast new landscape for the band, with thunderous bass lines and dark, soaring post-rock guitars supporting Jonsi’s incomparable vocal surge. Sigur Ros has also almost always been at their best when making more serious, ominous music (“Hoppipola” notwithstanding) but this track indicates something new is afoot; they have rarely sounded this completely hopeless and foreboding. Elsewhere, the title track approaches similar territory albeit with much less atmosphere and more direct aggression, depending on bare-bones distortion and dominant percussion elements that create a severely unsettling mood. The only other time that Kveikur veers in this direction over its nine tracks is on penultimate offering “Blapraour”, which gets back to the band’s penchant for crescendo rock and benefits from its steady build into a cascade of drums and pleading vocals (Jonsi continues to amaze me by his ability to so effectively communicate emotion through vocals in what is to me a highly foreign languange). Elsewhere, “Isjaki” and “”Stormur” provide perfectly palatable major key triumphs, and “Hrafntinna” may be the most overlooked track here, with its clattering cymbals, intermittent horns and subdued, cooing vocals providing a well-timed respite. This is their best album since Takk, and the most similar one to () in their catalogue. It seems to hold some promise for the future for one of the greatest bands currently alive.

#9 Arcade Fire/ Reflektor

homepage_large.79062484Critics will cite a progression on this, the fourth full length from indie rock kings Arcade Fire, towards more mainstream, adult contemporary rock music. That complaint isn’t completely unfounded, although it may be misdirected, as a more reasonable comparison might be to a band like U2 in their prime rather than someone like today’s Kings of Leon or Mumford and Sons. Reflektor may not be taking any tremendous musical risks, but it is tough to fault the record for delivering what it intends to- 85 minutes of remarkably polished, arena-sized rock music separated across two records. The most noticeable change from their prior work is how laid back and carefree this music seems to be, and it all starts with the shimmering title track, which combines bongo drums and a disco beat as Regine Chassagne purrs backing harmonics in her native French to complement husband Win Butler’s commanding lead vocals. There’s a similar sound present on penultimate track “Afterlife”, a huge anthemic highlight that builds steadily and could have served just fine as the closer here, as the subdued “Supersymmetry” which fills that role is one of a few songs that render Reflektor a tad overwrought, even for its commendable ambition. Additonally, the flaws in Butler’s lyrical decisions reappear here, rendering songs like “Normal Person” practically unlistenable as lines like “Never really ever met a normal person like you/ Well how do ya do?” cross the line from forgivable cliche into full blown wanna-be rock star douchiness, and Butler is better than this, because he is a bonafide rock star. Still, there’s big, impressive basslines on songs like “Joan Of Arc” and “We Exist”, and “You Already Know” is easily the most playful, non-pretentious rock song Arcade Fire has ever created. The best single guitar riff probably comes on the steady “It’s Never Over”, but the song that ties everything together might just be “Here Comes The Night Time” with its laser-focused rhythm and patient delivery as it grows and swells over its nearly seven minute length with a dazzling combination of suave bass and piano riffs. This is how Arcade Fire should always sound- honest, unpretentious, vulnerable and super-serious all at once.

#8: Deafheaven/ Sunbather


The sophomore effort from these Bay Area heavy rockers is a challenging front to back listen for sure, but undeniably less so than what is typical for its genre; could this be the black metal crossover album? Sunbather alternates between its four massive tracks with three calming instrumental ones that are symmetrically inter-spaced and blend seamlessly into the vast soundscape, demonstrating a keen ear for pacing in the process. While all standing on their own with unique individuality, structurally, the big four tracks all share similarities: rapid fire drumming met with incoherent vocal screams initially, then evolving into sky-covering crescendos reminiscent of Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Explosions In The Sky. Opening track “Dream House” manages to sound triumphant and breathtaking musically even with lead singer George Clarke’s bloodcurdling, relentless screams of “I want to die!” punctuating its catharsis. It’s the contrast between the beauty of the music and the raw, harsh vocal delivery that makes Sunbather such an engaging listen. After calming down into “Irresitible”, a lovely acoustic guitar melody that stands well enough on its own yet at the same time doesn’t draw attention to itself as the track switches, swarming distortion opens the epic title track with a bang. It is an intoxicating listen over its 10 minutes, weaving and winding through many complex stanzas before building to a climax around the 8:30 mark, the payoff of which cannot be understated. Deafheaven employs structural tricks effectively, often bringing the music to a complete standstill only to burst back forcefully. “Vertigo” stands as the longest song here at nearly 15 minutes, and begins with some of the most accessible guitar rock on the whole album, but this is merely a foil for the dramatic bludgeoning that unfolds as it progresses. Closer “The Pecan Tree” puts everything together but operates in the opposite direction, beginning with full-fledged chaos and easing itself into a lovely goodbye, complete with piano and layered guitars.

#7: Vampire Weekend/ Modern Vampires of the City


On their third full length album, Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City is distinctly stripped down and restrained relative to their prior work, and is all the better for it; this is the band’s best album to date. The thematic material ranging from death to religion doesn’t come off as overly serious, yet establishes a tone that confirm these once preppy, moderately annoying kids from Columbia have grown up a bit. Gentle piano opens the album on “Obvious Bicycle” as lead singer Ezra Koenig shows off an impressively scaled vocal delivery that rests on a falsetto drop; the song never really goes anywhere and it is all the more lovely for it. There’s still hints of the summer boogie, outdoor festival major key sound that made the band famous to begin with, notably on the rollicking “Diane Young”, and you can almost visualize a full crowd with beach balls bouncing around when the percussion kicks in on the scat sung, Animal Collective-inspired “Finger Back.” Outside of that, there’s a surprising amount of darkness and atmosphere holding this record together. An obvious early highlight is “Step”, with its soft drum clap, gorgeous piano melody and distant choral vocal sample, as Koenig delivers observant lyrics such as “Wisdom’s a gift but you’d trade it for youth” over the course of a track that in terms of tone lands somewhere between melancholy and submissive as it winds down softly to reveal its stunning emotional core. Arguably even more powerful is the fantastic “Ya Hey”, with its catchy synth breaks and additictive melody that combine with more lifted vocal samples.  There’s a nod to a vast array of musical influences, such as the Dirty Projectors on “Everlasting Arms” and Panda Bear on “Worship You” that add an element of breath to this album. Violin strings hold together the soft, wise-beyond-its-years “Don’t Lie”, while the band has probably never demonstrated build the way that they do on the patient, slowly evolving centerpiece “Hannah Hunt”, as Koenig’s strained vocals during the final trip through the chorus showcase a genuineness that was very atypical on the band’s first two albums.

#6: Kanye West/ Yeezus


When Kanye West suddenly annouced the imminent release of his rather shockingly titled album Yeezus, it’s fair to say that most us didn’t expect anything quite so bleak, desolate and raw. A buzzing, chilling synth serves as the backbone for opener “On Point” and it’s immediately clear that Yeezus finds West heading in a far different musical and emotional direction than ever before. What makes the album so polarizing is the nearly complete lack of percussion or strobe-lit festival intensity that Kanye is famous for (“Send It Up” being the only possible exception). It takes a truly brave artist to pull off a line like “I just talked to Jesus/ He said what up Yeezus/ I said I’m just chillin’/ Tryin’ to count these millions” as he does on the blatantly egotistical and borderline blasphemously titled “I Am A God.”  A certain balance of both sarcasm and seriousness has to be present in order for a line like that to work on any level, and West pulls it off remarkably on one of the album’s highlight tracks. What’s surprising is that despite the overall bare and stripped-down feel of these songs, West finds time for moments of subtle atmosphere mixed between beauty and pure terror by utilizing unexpected and sudden tone shifts – the gorgeous breaks on “On Point” and “New Slaves”, the tortured shrieks through the coda of “I Am A God,” among others. “Hold My Liquor” is arguably the prettiest song on the album, carrying a defeated tone that is rare for an artist that usually lays the bravado on pretty thick, while he delivers one of the best verses of his career on the heartwrenching divorce tale “Blood on the Leaves”, complete with forboding, propulsive synthesized horns. Most affecting of all is the skeletal echo of a synth beat complemented by violin elements on the racially charged indictment “New Slaves”, and the moment that song takes a full shift into a gorgeous blues breakdown that is in complete contrast to the all of the music that came before it works perfectly; it’s a demonstration of West’s utter brilliance from a production standpoint. And it takes a higher level of thinking and creativity altogether to sample Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” on “Blood On The Leaves” or an obscure soul tune combined with Brenda Lee on closer “Bound 2.” First single “Black Skinhead” comes of with a militaristic beat that almost sounds like a rap version on Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People”, complete with deep bass drops and ghostly howls. The only near mess comes on the incredibly explicit “I’m In It”, but there’s enough sonic diversion and vocal additions from the likes of Bon Iver and reggae artist Assassin to send the track over. Say what you will about Kanye West, but after this album it would be difficult to argue that he is a producer afraid to take artistic risks to stunning effect. To my ear, Yeezus lands well in the upper echelon of his catalog.

#5: Danny Brown/Old


It was a difficult choice between this year’s two towering rap record highlights, but I ended up giving the slight nod to Detroit product Danny Brown’s debut simply because of its absolutely smothering scope and ambition. Much like last year’s best album, Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, M.A.A.D. City, Old is a loosely conceived concept album, and while it may not be quite as impactful overall as Lamar’s opus, it arguably shows greater artistic promise and potential for what’s to come in the future. From a musical standpoint, this collection of songs combines suave, understated bass lines with Brown’s unique, often abrasive vocal delivery, which alternates between the strained nasal style typical on 2011’s crucial mixtape XXX, and a newly refined, snarling baritone. He’s at his most effective when switching from one to the other as he does on the sinister “Gremlins” and on the diabolical “Dope Song.” The album moves along smoothly, its 19 tracks flowing relentlessly and quickly from one to another as early tone setters like “Wonderbread” provide chilling anecdotes describing the extremely rough day to day happenings growing up in the Detroit ghetto. For all its thematic depth, Old still provides moments of pure freak out club music on “Dip” and “Break It Go”, complete with futuristic sound elements that are on another level when compared to his prior work. The album hits its highest point right in its belly, as the one-two punch of “Clean Up” and “Red 2 Go” provide arguably the two most powerful moments here back to back, and in a massive contrast stylistically. The former finds Brown lamenting his past mistakes and the effect his upbringing has had on him in his most serious, vulnerable and honest production to date, complete with a slow, low dropped bass beat that would sound perfect on a Flying Lotus album. The latter balances a steady synth reminiscent of early Mobb Deep, jabbing basslines and fluttering percussion as Brown delivers memorable lines like “Did it my way/ I ain’t nobody ho/ I’m bout to pimp the rap game/ Bitch I’m red to go” with heavily regional inflection. “Smokin and Drinkin” would ordinarily come off as a simple party tune if it wasn’t for its insane massiveness on a sonic level, while penultimate highlight “Kush Coma” combines hazy, dazed atmospherics with some of Brown’s fastest, tongue twisting rhymes. This is an album for every old geezer that ever complained about rap not having “instruments”, because if you can’t grasp the fact that Brown’s voice is an instrument in and of itself, you have no business listening to music of any kind in the first place.

#4: Darkside/ Psychic


Of all the great albums released in 2013, none stood alone and occupied its own unique genre quite like Psychic. Darkside is a collaboration between electronic mastermind Nicolas Jaar and guitarist Dave Harrington, and their debut record is a meticulous and game-changing re-imagination of music that suggests endless possibilities. Every restrained note here is filled with purpose, and for all of the psychedelic influences that appear to creep towards the surface, they are balanced out and checked evenly with an ambiance that is decidedly intergalactic. It is fairly mind-blowing to see artists in their early 20s operating with such restraint and vision, as Psychic‘s focus prevails over its eight tracks, each of which is content to evolve at its own pace without ever trying to outdo itself. The spectacularly epic twelve minute opener “Golden Arrow” builds patiently for nearly five full minutes before the beat kicks in and steadily gains subtly intertwined electronic instrumental additions. The first sign of a vocal doesn’t come until the seven minute mark as Harrington’s falsetto brings the track to nearly a complete stop before picking right back up again. It’s a powerful moment, and vocals are used intermittently in like manner throughout the album, adding to the dreamy space-rock atmospherics. Never is this more evident than on the stunning “Heart”, which starts with battle march drums, picks up a twangy 70s rock guitar line and an otherworldly loveliness from its processed vocals. If there’s such a thing as “acid blues”, then “Paper Trails” is it, managing to combine a steady blues scale guitar riff with Jaar’s deep vocals which are in stark contrast to Harrington’s high strained octaves, culminating into a dark-lit slow burner possibly born from the same galaxy as Massive Attack’s “Splitting The Atom.” There’s almost too much going on to keep track of on centerpiece “The Only Shrine I’ve Ever Seen” as layers of thick bass and tambourines evolve into a rocking riff that might have fit on The Doors’ Morrison Hotel, and then into soft, acapella vocals, while the groovy  “Freak, Go Home” is a hidden gem, simply gliding along with its swanky rhythm and fuzzy synth loop. The peaceful, relaxing closer “Metatron” literally sounds like it was recorded in outer space, and while as close to Pink Floyd as Darkside gets, adds futuristic snares and synths that amount to so much more than a simple throwback comparison. Taken in full, Psychic is a surprising and unexpected record that manages to balance its calm, drift-into-oblivion mood with music that is equal parts challenging and fascinating.

#3: Fuck Buttons/ Slow Focus


In a year that seemed so loaded with quality albums of the purely instrumental, completely devoid of vocals variety, none showed the same structural acumen as the aptly titled Slow Focus, the third full length from multi-instrumentalist duo Benjamin Power and Andrew Hung as Fuck Buttons. A considerable step forward from 2009s vital Tarot Sport, this effort is remarkable for its depth of texture and density. They don’t waste any time getting straight to the point as opener “Brainfreeze” begins with isolated, demonic percussion and picks up what seem like immeasurable layers of sound as it swells and evolves, eventually collapsing back upon itself. There is less emphasis on release and catharsis here; these songs are content to begin with enormous tension and simply maintain that endowment rather than release it as they expand. For as ominous and monolithic as the opening track feels, a catchy whistle melody provides distinct contrast on the enormous, sweeping highlight “The Red Wing”, which steadily gains an industrial guitar riff, fluttering electronic horns, laser beam synths, and screaming chimes as it exhudes confidence all the way through. A perfect microcosm for the multi-dimensionality of this collection of songs, this is one to listen to when walking by yourself in the dark; I’ll be damned if it doesn’t make you feel completely and utterly invincible. There’s such diversity on this record, as the foreboding tone of the first half gives way to more all-encompassing beauty on the longer tracks that close the album. “Stalker” balances a fuzzy, repetitive bass jab with rollicking percussion, an ethereal synth squeal and cascading distortion, while closer “Hidden Xs” begins with a gorgeous electronic keyboard riff and gains massively distorted basslines and soaring shoegaze guitar, but is most successful thanks to its perfectly executed and carefully intertwined electronic clap-drum percussion. The closer is a song that equals “The Lisbon Maru” and “Olympians” from their last effort in terms of pure beauty, but does so in a manner that suggests loneliness and the relentless pursuit of perfection all at once. In between there’s “Prince’s Prize”, with its techno synth lines that move along with blazing velocity, which would seem totally out of place here if it weren’t for how intensely focused and intense the arrangement is. This is a serious record, for serious moods, and not for the faint of heart–there’s just too much going on here from a textural standpoint to even describe accurately enough for me to do it justice.

#2: My Bloody Valentine/ mbv


There have been rumblings and rumors of new music on the way from infinitely influential shoegazers My Bloody Valentine for years, but to call the sudden release of mbv in February, the band’s first since the landmark Loveless in 1991, a surprise would be a vast understatement. It’s a testament to the quality of the music assembled here that even after a more than twenty year layoff and an early-in-the-year release that at this point seems like ages ago, mbv maintains its status as one of the very best albums of 2013. Its nine tracks are organized in a manner that seems similar to an album like The Beta Band’s The Three EPs, as instead of flowing seamlessly the band takes us on a journey through time over three unique stanzas. The first three songs pick up right where Loveless left off, as the airy, gentle sounds of “She Found Now” harken back to the subtle atmospheric beauty of previous songs like “Sometimes.” The familiar sound of feedback-laden guitar enters the fray as “Only Tomorrow” elevates the energy level, while “Who Sees You” pushes its own limits, showing off the intentionally discordant, screeching guitar beauty typical on prior classics like “When You Sleep” and “I Only Said.” In the middle, we get a glimpse of what a My Bloody Valentine pop record might sound like, and while the decidedly mainstream center of the album may have been a turn off to some hardcore fans, it’s worth pointing out how well the band pulls it off. “New You” is an amazingly catchy, foot-stomping jam that is strikingly accessible if not incredibly complex, while the lovesick “If I Am” glides along effortlessly with the nonchalant precision of its gorgeous underlying guitar line and the comforting “oohs” of its chorus. The final three tracks are the most exciting and focused on the future, building upon the band’s strengths while adding experimental new elements focused heavily on the possibilities of percussion. “In Another Way” is purely awesome, with propulsive drumming serving as the backbone beneath is swirling guitar distortion. The brute force of the completely instrumental “Nothing Is” rolls along with punishing repetition and is unlike anything My Bloody Valentine has ever put together. But closer “Wonder 2” tops everything that came before it, opening and closing with guitar effects reminiscent of a helicopter taking off, complete with heavenly vocals that hover well above the surface, and held together by a commanding guitar line that can best be described as resembling a massive swarm of bees. If this is the last album we ever get from My Bloody Valentine, then it was worth the wait, and if we have to wait another twenty two years? Hey, you’ve got to have something to look forward to.

#1: Daft Punk/ Random Access Memories


It is ironic indeed that in a year so jam-packed with top efforts in the electronic arena, the best album of all came from this enigmatic duo, once electronic pioneers themselves, on an inspired collection of songs that contrasts sharply with their prior work in that musical field. Random Access Memories sparkles with some of the most immaculate production ever put to record in music history, and does so spanning a magically broad spectrum in terms of genre, proving that Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo do not merely endeavor to create new music and leave their mark as influences in their own right; they are fans of the past, present, and future of the vast musical spectrum itself.  Both an exploration into what music could be and a recap of what music used to be, Random Access Memories is a far cry from Daft Punk’s techno driven beginnings and defies characterization, but comes closest to operating as guitar-driven dance pop–a surprising evolution indeed. Opener “Give Life Back to Music” sets a thematic tone, as bouncing synths and acoustic guitar plucks carry the robotic vocals that the band has practically patented at this point. Summer anthem and instant classic “Get Lucky” serves as the quintessential pop song of the year as it combines dance elements which are very of-the-moment with a disco influence that pays homage to the sounds of the late 70s, all complemented by the single catchiest guitar hook of the year and by star vocalist Pharell Williams, who also makes an appearance on the less indelible but quite functional “Lose Yourself to Dance.” The album’s only misstep comes early, taking a pass at R&B on the dreary “Game of Love.” The piano driven “Within” comes shorty after and works much better in terms of the downtempo, minor key aesthetic, but comes off all the more powerfully for forcing the listener into a reality check- is this really a Daft Punk record to begin with? Then there are songs that pull together and combine multiple genres. Daft Punk takes a huge risk with theatrical centerpiece “Touch”, and delivers a show-stopping highlight as it switches between the a capella vocals of Paul Williams and slowly picks up beautiful orchestral strings and choral vocals to form the most emotional moment in the band’s entire catalog; the fact that it’s followed immediately with the carefree “Get Lucky” demonstrates a tremendous sense for pacing. The epic arrangement of “Giorgio by Moroder” features a spoken monologue by its namesake which builds upon a sharp, synthesized beat and gains violin elements into its freak-out electric guitar coda. Indie guest superstars abound, as Julian Casablancas shows off his range even through heavily processed vocals on the catchy “Instant Crush” and Panda Bear is a breath of fresh air throughout his cameo on the electro-pop driven “Doin’ It Right.” Symphonic strings open “Beyond” and build into a rhythmic electronic groove as the album picks up steam through its back half, moving through the whistling woodwinds and lounge bar swirl of “Motherboard” into the crystal clear production of “Fragments of Time.” Fittingly, Daft Punk choose to conclude the album with the only song that truly resembles their prior work, the grand scale festival techno of the mammoth, frantic and incredibly pleasing closer “Contact,” which gets a huge boost from its immersing, pounding drum component. Random Access Memories is an album chock full of both reflection and innovation all packaged as one seamless unit, and this, out of all the albums released in 2013, is the one that we will be most likely still listening to and discussing a decade from now.

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