Top 10: A Music Geek’s Favorite Albums of 2013
By Matt Grosinger on January 1, 2014
This August I met Sky Ferreira and was waaaaay happier about it than she was (see picture). I was at a DIIV concert (they made this list last year) when I spotted her in the crowd as she watched her boyfriend perform aloofly in oversized jean overalls onstage. I tried to make sentences come out of my mouth, but all I managed were sheepish compliments about her performance at Pitchfork Festival earlier in the summer. It was an awesome moment that will never happen again, and one that I and that photobombing troll won’t soon forget.
For the past three or so years, I have hated going to concerts. I preferred the solitary experience of staying at home, queuing up a new playlist, album, or stream, and then flipping the switch on my noise-cancelling headphones, and zoning out. But gradually, the noise started to seep back in. Algorithms on every platform were telling me what I should be listening to before I was even halfway through trying to enjoy what I was already listening to. My open tabs became a to-do list. In short, this began to annoy the shit out of me.
As the music landscape extends outward in its multidimensional trajectory and often evolves too quickly for this self-identifying millennial, I have begun to appreciate the finite physicality of performance. The concert is your one opportunity to engage with the artist that can never be replicated like hitting the repeat button allows. Sure you can record it, but that pixelated footage never really comes close, and you must know that as you are taping. Sometimes you have to go and do, and maybe some dude will troll your fan pic with Sky Ferreira, but that is totally worth it! I get to remember how awesome that concert was and how ridiculous I felt asking to take a picture with a musician I really like.
This filtered its way into into my album list for 2013, because I tried initially to treat each new album I listened to as a terminal experience, and base my judgements off the first listening experience. I am all for growing with albums and letting them steep in my subconscious, but this year I really focused on the first moments and how I responded viscerally to new sounds. Below are the ten albums that made a distinct impression right away.
With the release of his fifth LP, Kurt Vile has officially solidified his title as “best dude of all time.” In 2013, his hometown of Philadelphia, where he lives as a family man, awarded him with his own holiday — August 28th — and the Liberty Bell Award — the city’s highest honor. And just this week, the Philadelphia CityPaper dubbed him Artist of the Year. What comes across in Wakin On A Pretty Daze, an expansive, personal, and sometimes charmingly insular record is that Kurt is most himself when he is at home, and he is most at home when he is comfortable in his own head. I am glad he has been recognized, and I bet he is grateful, but I have the feeling he would be just as happy to be home, accolades and recognition notwithstanding. Check out the video below to see what I mean.
Double Cup is an album I felt in my gut right away. I was sitting down when I first let it blast out of my speakers, and that was SO not the move. This is an album — like all tracks in the genre of Chicago Footwork — that makes you want to tap furiously on surfaces to replicate those belligerent snares and frenetic bass kicks. DJ Rashad is a legend in Chicago (along with RP Boo, DJ Spinn, and DJ Nate) for having represented this underground dance music so well to the outside. As an ambassador of this evolution of what was once called juke and ghettohouse before that, DJ Rashad has given the sound the sense of magnitude it so deserves.
One of my favorite new artists of the year, Kelela presented sonic challenges throughout her debut mixtape, Cut 4 Me, that pushed the listener to parse her lyrics and lean on her glistening voice for resolution. This sort of listening experience where you have to earn the album’s most memorable moments is one that I valued most this year, because after multiple listenings, I have realized its immense staying power. I will still be grooving to Kelela’s off-kilter, futuristic R&B record well into 2014.
The National never miss a step, and that is something that rarely gets enough credit. Ever since Alligator, back in 2005, The National have painted corners of the same canvass to reveal a doleful composition rife with humane lessons about disappointment, love, and how those two are often inextricable. In this way they are masters of their own space, and Trouble Will Find Me adds melancholy brush strokes to stories of languishing adults, who occasionally catch the slightest tinge of twilight sun. Much love for these fellow Cincinnati dudes after another amazing record.
“When a fire starts to burn, and it starts to spread…” is Disclosure’s artistic mantra. After releasing a few tracks throughout 201o and 2011, brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence really came online this year as they skillfully infused their spacious house music with soulful R&B verses and samples that call upon the recent ’90s R&B nostalgia that has washed over underground music. (“Latch” was mentioned this year as the band’s definitive jam and probably the reason for Sam Smith’s future success as a solo artist). If ever house music was going to careen its way into the mainstream (hey, if dubstep did it…), now is the time and Disclosure are at the fore.
I am really happy for Sky Ferreira. Everything about her narrative exudes “underdog,” and whether that is intentional or not, Sky’s story makes a lot of sense in 2013. Jon Caramanica of the New York Times noted that in 2013, our female pop stars — think Miley and Katy Perry — channeled darkness or alienation to claim number one spots in the top-40 landscape. Though the gender dynamics of this trend are a little troubling (as they oft are), Sky is in a place where she is capable of being frank about her identity as it corresponds to relationships with people in traditional roles of power. Sky acknowledges her many vulnerabilities and owns them, whether proudly or not, before we as listeners are given any time to judge or label her a victim. In this way, her hardships becomes her own brand of agency and she is able to make confident statements about who and where she is. Just look at that fucking album cover, man! She looks dejected, but also like she is on the verge of lashing out.
Let’s be introspective, together! You might love him, or you might hate him (whats up comment section), but Drake is now officially in the imperial stage of his career. He can be on his worst behavior, and we — the general public, top-40 radio, (and I) — will genuflect, project our own emotional problems into his self-immolating R&B and his occasionally untempered cockiness. Drake does more with less on Nothing Was The Same, and that is a nice summary of the spare sounds that populated some of my favorite artists and tracks of the year. I feel like I hear popular taste change when I listen to Drake, and that is a strangely thrilling sensation about an artist that always makes me introspective.
Closure. Finally. After 22 years of waiting and coming to terms with the impossibility of a gauze-wrapped pipe dream, two separate generations of music lovers were finally given the historical document they had been promised for so long. As forbears of shoegaze and all the genre extensions that has bred over the past twenty years, My Bloody Valentine is an inescapably mythologized band who have proved they are still the best ones doing the genre they kickstarted. The album starts from the revving but serene distortion of “she found now,” gradually moves through excessively nitpicked layering and tracking until the final song, “wonder 2,” erupts like an air raid as thrusts of guitar blare like a siren and helicopter-emulating effects lift you way up from the world that MBV meticulously mapped out in 1991.
Lorde is a pop star we need. Ann Powers of NPR just wrote an excellent article likening Lorde’s breakout success to the sort of generational megaphone effect Nirvana had over twenty years ago: namely, a young person’s reaction to all the skewed, misconstrued versions of success and happiness that we continue to be force-fed from one chart-topper to the next. But I am ultimately more interested in the genesis of her sonic palette and what that indicates about the experience of someone who grew up in the cloud.
When I listen to Lorde I begin to wonder “what is it like to be a young person in 2013?,” and if that question is synonymous with “how much progress have we made?” There is way too much to be said this year about cultural and racial appropriation (what up, Miley Twerkin’ Cyrus): Lorde nimbly assails industry-defined versions of happiness, all the while relying on popular styles of electronic and hip-hop production. It is messy and nonlinear, and we are figuring it out together. This is why I most appreciate Lorde’s moments of introspection on Pure Heroine. This year, a 17-year-old gave me some much-needed insights about growing up and about how that never really ends. I am very optimistic about her and the energy she is injecting into our pop charts. Definitely a keeper.
There is a Kurt Vonnegut quote that I love and will always think is true. It goes something like this: “Life is nothing but high school… you get into real life and that turns out to be high school again.” I subscribe to the line of thinking that a) most things are absurd because we made them, and b) we revert back to adolescence every time we transition from one absurd life stage to the next. Vampire Weekend document the growing pains that happen in the interstice between youth and adulthood.
Making sense of your existence is a lifelong project, obviously, but it never feels more imperative than when you switch directions. Grasping at cultural touchstones for bearings is always something Vampire Weekend has done well, but never have they so expertly and powerfully questioned faith and spirituality as on Modern Vampires of the City, the band’s best album to date. Because there is so much to grasp in a culture that is hyper accelerated, it must feel especially futile that our problems our just as old-hat as ever. That’s why Vampire Weekend has offered us a post-modern version of faith, one that lets you lean on whatever you need to make it through to the other side, wherever that may be.
On “Step,” Ezra Koenig sings “I can’t do it alone.” This is not a new idea, but it always feels like a novel revelation when we realize it for ourselves. Sure, there is absurdity, but that’s why we have each other’s ideas too.