In a year brimming with an overabundance of brilliance, Across the Margin delves into the best of the best. Presenting, the Top 20 Albums of 2013……
2013 was a prolific year for music. It was like someone had opened all the musical faucets, left them running and set off down the halls, laughing and pushing their buddies as they envisioned the mischief they had caused. Sinks overflowed and everywhere you looked there was new music and fresh sounds to behold. Established and new artists alike pushed the state of music forward like no other time in recent memory. Some call it the most impressive year of music in decades, an idea we certainly will not argue with. David Bowie shocked us with an album recorded in secrecy. My Bloody Valentine returned from a 21 year hiatus with an astounding follow-up to 1991’s Loveless. Kanye rocked us with Yeezus. A little known New Zealander named Lorde showed us that confessional bedroom-pop and electro-rock do go well together, and solid acts like Arcade Fire and The National wowed us once again with their depth and grasp of the human condition. So, with this in mind, how does one distill the greatness that was 2013’s Year in Music down to a few top albums? It ain’t easy, but we here at Across the Margin gave it a try and here’s what we came up with. In the end, we think you may be as pleased as we are with what we found…
20. Lorde – Pure Heroine
Ella Yelich-O’Connor (a.k.a Lorde) is a 16 year old music phenom with a coolly detached vocal delivery. Hailing from New Zealand, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the slow-downed stylings of Lana Del Rey with her sound. But where Del Rey takes us on a nostalgic journey through an America that was promised but never quite attained, Lorde chooses to cast her gaze forward, offering a weighty commentary on modern youth. To the march of lumbering beats and jaded lyrics, Lorde indicts the materialistic obsessions pervading pop and hip-hop today, cleverly using Pure Heroine as a soapbox from which she let’s loose a sharp-witted lyrical attack on the industry’s misguided state of affairs. Lamenting on age’s failure, songs like “Royals”, “Team” and “Tennis Courts” explore the concepts of consumerism and suburbanism through the prism of the materialistic hallmarks they possess. Pure Heroine succeeds because it is an indie-tinged electro pop album with a healthy dose of vulnerable realism. An album that begs to ask: Is there more to this world then the things that we own? And at the end, as the album’s last note fades away, one may find the answer is a resounding Yes! as concepts like Love, Friendship and Imagination echo within our minds, reminding us that they are more powerful than any tangible we could ever possess.
19. Yo La Tengo – Fade
Whatever happened to the mixtape? Are we of the dwindling few who still pine for its existence? Who still labor to put that perfect Yo La Tengo song between The Smiths “How Soon is Now” and The Talking Heads “Psycho Killer”? And who cringe at the thought of putting their music library on shuffle? Yo La Tengo has traditionally been a band that moved contrary to modern circles and Fade, their thirteenth studio album, is no different. Choosing to reject the shuffled, rapid-fire nature of our on-demand culture, their latest album finds Yo La asking you to enjoy just how complex simplicity can be. With centerpiece tracks like the hazy, dub-rhythmed “Two Trains” and the exploratory guitar-spiked “Stupid Things”you get a sense of the playfulness that made Yo La Tengo great, but also of the quieter soundscapes that they expertly build. Coming in at just 10 songs and 46 minutes long, Fade is a tight little album, but the relaxing nature of its tracks function subtly to lull you into a pleasing, adventurous headspace that will have you nostalgic for those old mix tapes that we all adore.
18. Bill Callahan – Dream River
Dream River is the fifteenth album from prolific singer-songwriter Bill Callahan. It is a tender and profound album that flows with a deliberate purposefulness, appearing to be in no rush to let its pensive sound enfold. Like a lazy cloud on a blue-sky day, the existence of Dream River seems effortless, as if it has conjured itself out of thin air. As if the only way the next note could possibly ever exist is if the one before it did first. It’s an album that at its core, celebrates an acceptance of the simplicity of life. Of the power of the silence that lies between notes. Of the smallness of Humanity in the grand scheme of our existence and how we can all learn to say so much by saying so very little.
17. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
Admittedly, we are shameless devotees of The National. Matt Berninger’s tales of the modern man’s struggles, no matter how mundane, bellowed in his signature pitch-perfect baritone, just hit us like a punch to the gut. We find the forbidding romantic lyricism, draped in unconventional, classically-inspired complex arrangements, emotionally draining yet spiritually uplifting. So it is no surprise to find their sixth full-length album amongst our year’s best. Playing to their strengths, Trouble Will Find Me happens upon The National at their most elegant, with moving numbers such as “This is the Last Time”, “I Need My Girl”, and “Pink Rabbits”. And it finds them at their most domineering, plowing through jostling numbers such as “Don’t Swallow the Cap”, “Demons”, “Sea of Love”, and “Graceless”. One of the most consistent acts in all of rock has dropped another solid album, one that flawlessly combines elements from their previous five records and sails smoothly from start to finish, ultimately highlighting the fact that The National now resides in full bloom, flexing the muscles of a fully developed and mature band.
16. HAIM – Days Are Gone
HAIM’s debut album, Day’s Are Gone, took a few listens before it had us hooked. It may simply have been that we were not yet ready for its arrival. Or it could have been the fact that it was a bit removed from where we usually cast our musical gaze. But whatever the reason, what we do know now is that these three talented ladies are locked firmly in our sights. Hailing from Los Angeles, HAIM is comprised of sisters Arielle and Danielle Sari and Alana Mychal Haim, for who the band is named. Most frequently compared to acts like Fleetwood Mac and the 70’s rock Americana that compromised that decade of sound, HAIM’s members are multi-instrumental musicians who are insistent that their sound is decisively modern. 1990’s girl groups like Destiny’s Child and TLC are just as easily to have influenced them as current artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Azealia Banks, producing an intriguing blend to their sound, as if folk rock had teamed-up with hip-hop and R&B. If Days Are Gone is any indication of where this band is headed then their future is brightly lit. HAIM’s ability to meld thoughtful, reflective music with catchy uplifting beats is great for the future of rock and its legions of fans who delight in finding room in their minds to dream.
15. Mac Miller – Watching Movies with the Sound Off
Mac Miller is a talented rapper and producer hailing from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who you know absolutely nothing about. Well, all that is about to change. His first album, Blue Side Park, debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 despite the fact that it was released independently and he has been making waves steadily ever since. A caucasian male raised to a Jewish mother and Catholic father, Miller realized at an early age that he wanted to focus on music full-time and make hip-hop his career1. Ever since then he has been slowly gaining respect and admiration in the hip-hop community and with his latest album, Watching Movies with the Sound Off we find Miller taking an attractive step in the right direction. With guest appearances from such stalwarts as Tyler the Creator, Ab-Soul, Earl Sweatshirt, Jay Electronica and Action Bronson (among others), the album comes across as an introspective experiment, showing a more vulnerable side of Miller and presenting a rapper who has a clearer sense of himself and his sound. The willfully goofy Mac Miller of Blue Side Park appears to have grown up, become more focused and made noticeable improvements to his lyricism and the production value of the psychedelic hip-hop he does so well. Tracks like “S.D.S” (produced by Flying Lotus), the rock-tinged “Remember” and the R&B-influenced “Youforia” show that when Miller is able to move away from the Stones Throw/MF Doom influenced tracks that help define his sound, what is left is an artist who has diversified and fully hit his stride.
14. NIN – Hesitation Marks
In a world so often obsessed with the new, what’s hot, and the controversial, it is always grand to see some of the old faithfuls get some true shine. This year Pearl Jam, David Bowie, Elton John, Eminem, and Queens of the Stone Age all released great albums, proving themselves inspired and relevant in today’s ever-changing musical landscape. Remember us?, these artists seemed to ask with a cocksure tone and a knowing smile. And none of these stalwarts of the industry spoke louder than Nine Inch Nails. The eighth full-length release for the Trent Reznor led band, its first in five years, is in many ways a return to the familiar sounds pioneered on Pretty Hate Machine, while simultaneously gunning for the future. The guitar play has been dialed down, in favor of a new wave, water-drenched synthetic sound, a pulsing electronic jaunt that would be the perfect soundtrack for a dance party on the eve of the apocolypse. Throughout the brooding “Copy of A” Reznor laments that “everything I say has come before,” yet Hesitation Marks is dripping with newfound creativity and finds Reznor bracingly reinvigorated. What if Beethoven, Mozart, or Brahms had at their disposal today’s technology while composing music? We tend to believe the soundscapes they would create wouldn’t be far from what Reznor (with frequent collaborators Atticus Ross and Alan Moulder) bestows upon us.
13. My Bloody Valentine – m.b.v.
What can be said about My Bloody Valentine that hasn’t been said already? They invented a genre. Gave us Loveless. Were hugely influential in the rise of 90’s alternative rock. They inspired Billy Corgan and Trent Reznor,Trey Anastasio, Radiohead and U2, and were doing things with music “head and shoulders” above what anyone else was doing at the time. After their breakup there were rumors that an entire album worth of material had been shelved and would never see the light of day, crushing the dreams of their legions of fans who had only wanted more. And for 21 years their fans waited until My Bloody Valentine finally reunited, began to tour, became comfortable with being a band again, ironed out all their differences and buried the hatchets of scorn. Then on February 2nd of this year the wait was finally over. Their third album, m.b.v. was released to their official web-site and promptly crashed their servers. But the album managed to trickle out and eventually it was there for the world to discover. And what was found was that m.b.v. was an amalgam, with songs recorded in the late 90’s before the band split up cleverly blended with songs recorded in the new century. It was a multi-decade joining of the old and the new that despite all the time and the differences and the drift and the misunderstanding that got in its way, it was all there patiently waiting for us, the things that make My Bloody Valentine’s music so great. There was Kevin Shields’s tremolo and pitch-bending. There was the dream pop and Belinda Butcher’s vocals. And there was the vivid, textured soundscapes and the wandering focus of the music that so perfectly characterizes their sound. But surprisingly there was something new to be found as well. There was a sense of renewal. Of a complex and wild feel to the sound. Of rhythms seemingly trapped in the moment and the timeless nature that surrounded it. Yes, it may have been that My Bloody Valentine had to break-up and wait 21 years to put this album out, but it comes off feeling like they never left.
12. Portugal The Man – Evil Friends
To describe Portugal The Man’s latest venture, Evil Friends, as top-heavy would be misleading. The entire album is chock full of the type of anthemic rock songs they are known for, yet it is easy to succumb to this viewpoint as the tracks at the top of the batting order are flat out stunning. “Plastic Soldiers”, “Creep in a Tee Shirt”, and “Evil Friends” will fasten themselves to you after just one listen, each offering a sing-along hook that, simply put, just makes you feel good. With Danger Mouse steering the ship, Evil Friends is Portugal The Man’s most polished effort to date, staying true to the loose, spasmodic constructs that makes them so damn interesting despite it’s multi-faceted nature. Vaulting from arena rock to eerie psychedelia, garage rock to pop, Portugal The Man’s seventh album serves as a grand introduction to those unaware of one of America’s better touring acts, while simultaneously pleasing their hardcores. And in the true spirit of rock, and of apathy, Evil Friends reminds us that it is okay to be who we are, even if that’s a “creep in a tee-shirt, jeans….I don’t fucking care.”
11. The Love Language – Ruby Red
It’s a shame. A farce. Bullshit really. We have witnessed all the year end, best-of lists (they’re not bad – but we are here to set the record straight!), and it is clear that Ruby Red is the most underrated, and thus under appreciated, album of the year. You are all asleep on this one, and it is time to wake the fuck up. Channeling the synth, pop-heavy decade of the 80’s, The Love Language (essentially Stuart McLamb alone, but he recruits a vast array of talent to rouse his complex visions to life) invokes the timeless hits of The Cure, Depeche Mode, and New Order. Ruby Red is a full-bodied album with tracks that delve into heavy orchestrated rock and cacophonous guitar campaigns such as in the closing moments of “Calm Down” and “Kids”, where meticulously constructed pop songs explode into a heated crescendo of psychedelia. There are synth ballads that exhibit McLamb’s unique vocal capabilities (“Golden Age”), as well as liberal uses of horn sections. If you find yourself amongst the many that allowed this album to pass you by during a year brimming with bountiful choices, it is not too late to right that wrong2
10. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
If ever there was an album to pay tribute to and celebrate the music that was coming out of Los Angeles in the 1970’s and early 80’s then Random Access Memories is it. An album flush with corroboration from musicians across multiple genre’s, Daft Punk’s latest offering is truly an epic journey of music. From the moment the first powerful lick of RAM’s opening disco-homage “Give Life Back to Music” hits you squarely in the chest with its bravado of noise, to the final closing seconds of “Contact”, the albums haunting, dream-filled ode to the sample-filled days of their youth, you get a sense that this album is here to stay. Random Access Memories is one of those timeless albums that we’ll all be listening to twenty years from now as we glide around in our flying cars ordering our tea “Earl Grey, hot” from our personal replicators. And you know what? The album will still sound like nothing else you have ever heard.
9. Volcano Choir – Repave
It is easy, and apropos, to take the stance that Repave is Bon Iver’s unofficial third album. It has all the components that make Justin Vernon’s previous albums so moving. The rustic chamber pop with a psychedelic edge, a sound pierced through with an impassioned, earthy and wounded falsetto, engulfed within dynamic and uplifting arrangements – all present here and fitting perfectly into the Bon Iver canon, measuring up in quality to both For Emma, Forever and Bon Iver. But, Volcano Choir is a fully operational band, and thus the sounds within Repave are much bigger, more full and emotionally affecting. It’s a gentle album, but one that rumbles with a power that can overcome you within a moments notice. It exhibits a complex structuring of electronic and acoustic arrangements, that balances perfectly the harmonic, uplifting hum of a potent symphonic backdrop with the delicateness of the human voice. “Acetate”, “Comrade”, Byegone”, and “Almanac” function as the album standouts, but allowing yourself an opportunity to immerse yourself in the album as a whole is how this dish is best served. Losing yourself in Repave is a rewarding experience, one that allows you to be overwhelmed by a complete spectrum of emotions, and astonished by the elaborateness of the robust compositions within.
8. David Bowie – The Next Day
After the release of 2003’s Reality, many thought that David Bowie had finally hung up his guitar for good. That the master of reinvention, who had donned the mask of Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom, The Man Who Fell to Earth and the Thin White Duke was finally calling it quits, choosing instead to focus more on his health, on being a father, a painter – on anything other than being a musician. Then on his 66th birthday, ten years after the release of his last album, he shocked the music world, announcing that all along he had been hard at work recording in secret. Easily one of the greatest comebacks in rock and roll history, A New Day is David Bowie at his best. A triumphant return from an artist the world was convinced had nothing more to give. Copying the cover of 1977’s seminal album Heroes, A New Day’salbum art subverts the black and white photo of Bowie that graced its cover, crossing out the word Heroes and placing a large white square directly over Bowie’s face as if suggesting that this album is about attempting to obliterate the past. But A New Day is Bowie’s autumn masterpiece, his admission to the world that he is still very much here, that he will not fade away into the halls of Legend and that he still has important things to say.
7. Empire of the Sun – Ice on the Dunes
“Loving every minute because you make me feel so alive.” Such begins the hollered chorus to Empire of the Sun’s mega-danceable hit “Alive”, a song that is as exhilarating as a fireworks finale on a warm summer night. Coming off of 2008’s debut Walking on a Dream, an album created by a seasoned pop-electronica duo who fully believed that they were going to be famous, Empire have been touring non-stop, finding that their brand of loudly-played party music will never be in short demand. Ice on the Dune is the logical response to this demand and is as much an album about the endless enthusiasm for life as it is a celebration of music’s power. Their stage presence is fascinating, as if one was thrust into a live-action performance of Flash Gordon with glittering, costumed dancers surrounding the elaborate, golden-robed duo as they flow across the stage in hypnotic flashes of sugary visual porn. Songs like “Awakening” and “Concert Pitch” are reminiscent of a bygone era, one where the disco of the 1970’s dominated and acts like Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor ruled the airwaves, while more the subdued, mid-tempo songs like “I’ll be Around” and “Keep a Watch” show you how deftly this band can glide between eras, like the winged Hawkmen of Flash Gordon’s realm. Ice on the Dune may be a recycled version of their first album, but what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in its power, its danceability and is overwhelming desire to make you feel…so alive.
6. Danny Brown – Old
After Danny Brown’s paramount release of his highly-acclaimed album XXX, we were still left wondering – Just who the fuck is Danny Brown? His talent was clearly evident, but nothing within the experimental, concept album of XXX allowed us any insight into the man behind the aptitude. But the game has changed. With Brown’s third offering, Old, we come face to face with Brown’s past, his demons, his reflective nature, and even his nightmares. He lets us in, no matter how disheveled and bizarre the contents we find may be. Old exhibits the type of introspective storytelling few rappers are capable of, especially considering the challenging and frantic beats that provide the backdrop to this eclectic album. Old is 19 songs, lengthy for a rap album, but this is truly a case of the more the merrier. Danny Brown is weird, of that there is no doubt. But what is also inarguable is his status as one of the best rappers working today. Old is his statement album. It’s abrasive, emotional, visceral, and honest, announcing to anyone in earshot that Danny Brown is the real deal.
5. Mikal Cronin – MCII
Mikal Cronin, Ty Segall’s on-again off-again partner in crime, opened our eyes with his sophomore release, the simplistically titled MCII. Showing that he had powers beyond shredding sludgy, reverberating garage rock chords, Mikal proved he can be an apt and versatile songwriter. A little known and incredibly pertinent fact, Mikal Cronin recently earned his B.F.A. in Music from Cal Arts and this education has lead to a broadening of his potentiality exhibited throughout MCII. String compositions are in ample supply (“Peace of Mind”, “Change”) as too are keyboard arrangements (“Weight”,” Am I Wrong, Piano Mantra), all utilized in the spawning of a new-found pop sensibility, a softening of the corners. “Weight” could be this year’s most uplifting and affecting rock song, a feel good anthem that strikes us as both novel and timeless. Mikal Cronin is a pop technician that seamlessly balances tender and brawn, cutting to ribbons the most beautiful of melodies at the most opportune of times. MCII is a triumph, one that ages like a fine wine, becoming more brilliant with each listen.
4. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Arcade Fire’s Reflektor is one of those rare gems. It’s an album that they did not have to make but they still did. An album that rejected their well-tested recipe for success3 in favor of musical indulgence and ambition, spirituality and infectious excitement. The implications of living in a world post-Reflektor are huge. If a band like Arcade Fire can so successfully pivot away from their deeply resonating sound and present to us an album as powerful as Reflektor then their future glitters as brightly as the myriad facets they possess.
3. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels
When the architects behind two of the more impressive albums of 2012 (Cancer 4 Cure, R.A.P. Music) linked up under the moniker Run the Jewels it was easy to surmise they were going to make waves, but we didn’t know they would be Tsunami-sized. We should have seen it coming, but truth be told we had no idea Killer Mike, a ferocious veteran rapper, and El-P, an edgy, boundary-smashing, synth-obsessed rapper/producer, would fuse together like peanut butter and jelly, coffee and cigarettes, or Tango and Cash. Run the Jewels is 10 tracks, forty minutes of in-your-face, aggressive battle rap. Lacking even a singular moment to catch your breath, Run the Jewels finds Killer Mike more focused, merciless, and impassioned than ever before. And El-P’s production displays a unique love for his latest project, as he abstains from the chaotic feel of many of his previous efforts, in favor of a cohesive approach that heavily favors anthemic hooks that remain true to his dystopian roots, but will assuredly rock a house party as well. Mike, when speaking of the album, attributes its success to hard work, and the reason they work so hard is also “to impress each other, as we love rap as much as you do.” Mike has some other interesting things to say, some exciting news for the new year, “we’re coming back next year. We’re gonna be recording December and January. Let’s everybody hope and pray that we make the illest, craziest possible Rap shit, that it’s dope as hell and that we enjoy another year of doing what we do for all the Run the Jewels fans.” Something tells us we can go light on the praying, anything these two collaborate on is destined to hit hard.
2. Kanye West – Yeezus
Kanye West makes us a better person. Phrased differently, it would be just as easy to say that Kanye West’s antics make us realize that we are better Humans than this man. But no, what we are saying is that Kanye challenges us. He forces us to ameliorate, to open up our mind. This is because to really, truly love Kanye’s music you must first dig deep and find a way, against all odds and obnoxious rants, to separate the art from the artist. It is impossible for many in the face of such breathtaking vanity, but the truth of the matter is that West’s music is just that good, and worth overcoming all personal feelings towards the man. And yes, haters, Yeezus is that good. It’s experimental yet polished, dangerous while disciplined, brash while cognizant. “Blood on the Leaves” is quite possibly his greatest achievement in a stout and already accomplished catalog. “Bound 2”, “Black Skinhead”, and “New Slaves” are no slouches in their own right, and if we could nestle into, and make a home of the final minute of “Hold My Liquor”, where Kanye precociously lets the amalgamated synthetic beat ride, we would. Yeezus, we begrudgingly admit, is one of the best albums of the year. Easily.
1. Phosphorescent – Muchacho
Imagine, if you will for a moment, that you had the ability, and the opportunity, to witness a man’s heart at the exact moment it were breaking. That you could see it convulse, cramp, and tear apart at the seams. And then, as hard as it may be to watch, you linger, and observe as that heart slowly, yet surely, finds a way to mend itself, to coalesce, and to beat again. This window into the voyage of an anguished heart is Muchacho, Phosphorescent’s latest masterpiece. Muchacho has a heartbeat, a labored heartbeat, which attracts like a magnet a dizzying whirlwind of sound that sucks you in and holds you ever so tight. And nestled within this emotional throb is Matthew Huock’s voice, a highly capable instrument that unleashes a gravely drone, a perfectly cracked tenor, that reeks of pain, regret, yet with it strength. Muchacho is a feeling, one many of us know all too well, and within its walls is the opportunity to empathize with another, and to become fully whole again. Muchacho is a graceful and penetrating awakening, and far and away the best album we have heard all year.
Fin. Happy New Year to All….and Thank You for spending time with us!
- “Once I hit 15, I got real serious about it and it changed my life completely … I used to be into sports, play all the sports, go to all the high school parties. But once I found out hip-hop is almost like a job, that’s all I did.” – Mac Miller [↩]
- Now may be as good a time as any to list a few of the artists on the cusp of this exclusive list. The honorable mentions, if you will. Kurt Vile, Chance the Rapper, Dr. Dog, Jim James, Tyler The Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, A$AP Rocky, Janelle Monae, Okkervil River, Darkside, Deafheaven, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Ducktails, Chvrches, Vampire Weekend, Pearl Jam, Eminem, Atoms for Peace, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Wooden Shjips, Junip, Boards of Canada, and Iron and Wine. Bravo to all, and thank you. [↩]
- AF’s second album, The Suburbs won a surprise Grammy for album of the year in 201 [↩]