New Releases: The 50 Best Albums of 2013
Every Tuesday, Dan Weiss runs down the week’s new full-length music releases, from charting hits to more obscure depths, the underrated and the overrated, from a critical pop fan’s perspective. This week is a special edition of the column, where Mr. Weiss recaps the year with his favorite albums. Presenting: The 50 Best Albums of 2013 (plus a whole bunch of honorable mentions listed in alphabetical order at the end).
1. The Knife – Shaking the Habitual (Mute)
Go ahead, skip to “Fracking Fluid Injection.” Ten minutes of bowing a cello with a dismembered seagull that still cries out as every strum saws away at its life force, it sounds quite literally like scraping the bottom of a barrel. And if you can’t take it, I hear Daft Punk is playing at Arcade Fire’s house. But creepy and unsettling as it is, they’re never that dark or miserable—that would be too habitual. They’re so much more interested in not just being funny, but also—hey—changing the world. So this is their dream tribute to Nine Inch Nails, gamelan gongs, Laurie Anderson, Salt ‘n’ Pepa, maybe even Scott Walker and whoever else fuels an unforgettable experience like the rattling wood blocks and East Asian flutes of “Without You My Life Would Be Boring,” or the Bjork balladry of “Raging Lung,” or the mournful march of “Wrap Your Arms Around Me.” Considering those all concern feelings of love, they humanize why being “ready to lose a privilege” connects their doctrinaire hardlines to the rest of their existence, the warm mush between artificial robotics that whir on up again for the small fanfare “Crake.” And the 19-minute soothsayer partitioning two discs makes 100 minutes seem shorter, game over.
2. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City (XL)
A perfect record in miniature, with career highs written (“Step”’s carefully chosen images have no flaws), played (that John Philip Sousa-esque bridge in “Unbelievers”) and sung (“Ya Hey” is where Ezra Koenig leaves gravity behind, floating from “Wimoweh” to foggy gospel choir). Two tracks (“Don’t Lie,” “Finger Back”) contribute so little as changes of pace that they function as wakeups, while “Hudson”’s an unintended bit of controversy over (get over it) the macabre minor key they used for the first time (and you have to love the Frankenstein’s laboratory shocks in the drum machine) . The recession-sympathetic “Obvious Bicycle” is an intro for the ages, “Young Lion” a polite denouement. A triumph of beginning middle and end. A triumph of setting out to do bigger things with one’s craft and not flying straight into the sun. Who was the last band of squares that could back it up this well? R.E.M. at their long-running greatest was never this spiritually rich or melodically deep.
3. Rachid Taha – Zoom (Wrasse)
Rai ‘n’ roll from Algeria’s finest, from the spindly creep of “Ana” that he augments with some spaghetti western guitar, to “Algerian Tango,” which is actually a reggae, and features the Clash’s Mick Jones intoning “I don’t forget/ Those who love me/ I don’t forget/ Those who betray me.” The garage riff and hall-of-mirrors dance beat of closer “Voila Voila” turns out to be the grimiest thing Brian Eno’s ever worked on, and an Algerian could actually tango to “Now or Never.” The fiddling on “Fakir” is one of the most joyous things you’ll hear in 2013. Get it for the “world” music skeptic on your list.
4. Sleigh Bells – Bitter Rivals (N.E.E.T.)
The best rock band on Earth sounds like no one else, and this is one of those albums no one knew what to do with, so they dismissed it, and I almost did too. It’s not distant air-quotes metal like the last one or hip-hop cheerleader chants like the debut, which in the end was mostly praised for the production’s ability to be mentioned in the same sentence as My Bloody Valentine—and an acoustic single that didn’t match. The acoustic guitar on “Bitter Rivals” is there to lure those people in and electrocute them—“Sing like a wire!” shrieks Alexis Krauss as the unbelievers fry. Over 29 minutes packed into an aural cinderblock (fun quiz: how many listens before you glimpse the piano?) and pelted at your skull, it’s a lot to process. But it’s the perfect soundtrack for “sending gummy bears to the electric chair,” as Krauss threatens in the record’s very last line. She leads the only band this year who got louder. Sweeter, too.
5. Superchunk – I Hate Music (Merge)
Who knows why people call this their darkest. Sure, the theme song is famously about death. “Void” is indeed hopeless—“All I see is a void,” howls Mac McCaughan channeling Corin Tucker in his most frightening falsetto. And obviously the six-minute closer is tinged with regret. But beyond that, this is a big rock candy mountain, the best New Pornographers album since Mass Romantic, with 85 hardcore seconds of “Staying Home” to prove 2013’s young people can’t rock for shit next to the old. It’s about B, A and E, the friendliest chords around. “The world slipped our mind” hooks “Trees of Barcelona,” the most euphoric song of 2013, and that’s not even the poppiest thing here. And the theme song’s not really about death. “We were always together, we were never the same,” sings the most humane record label owner in the world.
6. Basseyou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba – Jama Ko (Out Here)
You won’t hear a more impressive display of played, plucked notes this year than on “Sinaly” or “Ne Me Fatigue Pas,” courtesy of Kouyate’s constantly bending lute the ngoni, which undergirds not just him but an array of guests from Khaira Arby to Western bluesman Taj Mahal, all of whom manage to do what Damon Albarn somehow couldn’t: the spiciest and sweetest Malian blues album extant, with rocky grooves and rotating singers and all sorts of mystery and wonder to us outsiders before you even learn how angry you’re supposed to get at the Sharia war zone destroying Kouyate’s home and family, as well as banning music. The joyful outlier “Segu Jajiri” sounds beamed in from Senegal, a pretty great facsimile of Youssou N’Dour’s legendary Etoile de Dakar. But it won’t bring any murdered civilians back to this earth.
7. Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest (Warp)
Contrary to popular belief, bad records don’t actually put you to sleep. I can’t sleep without music on, and I’ll tell you the subtle line between “ambience” and “boredom”: if my brain is still busy trying to hum something else while I have a record on, that record has failed. Tomorrow’s Harvest kept it occupied so it could drift. In a year bulging with comebacks, reunions and stubborn 90s stalwarts, the Sandison brothers made the most retro move of all. Put on, say, “Palace Posy,” and you’ll flash on Aphex Twin’s …I Care Because You Do with the mix corrected. No more trying to punish you with drums or bury notational musical details under time-stretched sand. Like Music Has the Right to Children, their other good album, Harvest coheres so quietly you could love it and never learn a single title. But it rewards zeroing in, on the mechanized droplets of “White Cyclosa” or the interstellar boogie of “Split Your Infinites” or the seasick live drums on (haven’t they used this title already) “Jacquard Causeway.” But this is a massage and a lather even if you have no use for film scores.
8. The Dismemberment Plan – Uncanney Valley (Partisan)
The white-male best case scenario returns from 12 years in the real world to shed their most obnoxious fans via coke jokes and laundry lists of places they’re “doin’ it.” The “dated” slang and Devo synths and “the tumor is eagerly awaiting removal” are all distractions from a great band’s catchiest album ever, with a jock jam (“Go and Get It”), a connubial roller-disco climax (“Let’s Just Go to the Dogs”) and one country song everyone can agree on (don’t take those drums on “Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer” for granted just because Joe Easley “has midgets” now, as he calls them). It’s also got a buried gag about “White Collar White Trash” traveling to only dull towns so he doesn’t accidentally cheat on his spouse. The obnoxious fans can have “Invisible,” a tale of new-city jitters like they always do well. But us lifers hope to meet someone who inspires a “Lookin’” someday, someone to paint even after we’ve seen them naked for years.
9. My Bloody Valentine – mbv (self-released)
This was one to figure out. With no booming rock drums, looped-voices “oooh” hook or a stampeding intro like “Only Shallow,” Kevin Shields comes out of 22 years hibernation to bend the modal universe into unstable shapes. Drumless opener “She Found Now” forces us immediately to contend with no center, fuzz beyond fuzz, and a floorless wading with nothing to guide us but those whale song guitars. The next one “rocks.” Later “Is This and Yes” flirts with Terry Riley’s heaven-entry organ and “Nothing Is” consists only of a loop that recalls a rodeo jumping within washing machine. The whooshing “Wonder 2” swells and propels like a drum and bass helicopter where you can’t hear through the blades. All nine tracks are distinct, every chord sounds like one too many until you know it by heart. Loveless was cocksure and writhing. This is its leisurely equal.
10. Lady Gaga – ARTPOP (Streamline/Interscope)
She goes rogue. Pop fans wince at the lack of footholds, art fans wince because she toned up her synths instead of her mind, which I’ll cheerfully blame on her horniness. But “Do what you want with my body” would be a lyrical highlight of any year, and give her credit for knowing the difference between a “G.U.Y.” and a “Swine.” Not that she doesn’t celebrate both in her “Sexxx Dreams.” On the rock ‘n’ roll “Manicure” and the outdated piano lark “Dope” she out-sings 2013. And while she claims to live for the applause, she doesn’t let it run her muse or her music.
Click on to see albums 11-20…