I never get to experience the broadest variety of music. There are only so many hours in the day. I don’t dabble as much as I’d like. 2013 in particular saw me stick pretty close to my favorite genres, micro-genres and retro-notions. And I have to say that for similar minded fans of music, 2013 was a very good year.
The comeback had been festering, just beneath the surface, for a number of years now, but 2013 may finally have brought about a pop music renaissance. I’m not talking about Top 40 – the days that permitted consistently “good” music on the Top 40 charts have long since disappeared. The term “pop music” doesn’t need to be derogatory – it should imply a level of accessibility, not the derivative and over-produced slush we’ve come to associate with the term. The new wave has been inspired by the deep wellspring of 1980’s pop sensibilities. Hall & Oates. Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks. Tears for Fears. The Pet Shop Boys. New Order. Bands that crafted killer jams. Lyrics. A catchy hook. A solid beat.
When I think back to my favorite bands and tracks of 2013 the list is dominated by bands who sought inspiration from the pop music of their youth. 2013 was the year that put craftsmanship back into pop music. In most circles the bands still fall under the indie umbrella, but that term lost most of its luster long ago. It’s been distilled to dozens upon dozens of micro-genres. Indie isn’t so much a style of music as it is an identity. You either listen to “indie” or “Top 40,” but ever so slowly the gap between the two seems to be lessening. So-called indie bands are winning Grammies, topping sales charts and pulling requests on FM radio.
The 30Hz Top 25 Albums of 2013
The Almost Rans:
Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold, Arcade Fire – Reflektor, Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe, Danny Michel with The Garifuna Collective – Black Birds are Dancing Over Me, Depeche Mode – Delta Machine, Disclosure – Settle, Grey Reverend – A Hero’s Lie, Grouper – The Man Who Died in His Boat, Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle, Local Natives – Hummingbird, Mount Kimbie – Cold Spring Fault Less Youth, We/Or/Me – The Walking Hour
25. Young Galaxy – Ultramarine
Each track on Ultramarine spins a new hook. At first I wrote the record off as a rather shallow exercise in synthpop, but I just kept coming back… and the songs revealed greater depth and variety.
Favorite track: Pretty Boy
24. Darkside – Psychic
Jam band? Psychedelia? Blues? Post-rock? Can someone please classify Darkside? Cuz I give up.
Favorite track: Paper Trails
23. Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt
I picked this record up on vinyl, listened to it a few times and shelved it. A few months later a Waxahatchee song found its way into a shuffle during a morning run. I had no idea what it was but I loved it. The record returned to the turntable. Sometimes an album needs the requisite attention at the right moment in time to click. Katie Crutchfield’s fragile, confessional voice requires ears wide open and a moment of solitude.
Favorite track: Swan Dive
22. Mutual Benefit – Love’s Crushing Diamonds
A late entry into the 2013 canon, I stumbled onto this record after seeing the name pop up on a few “Best Of” lists. “Strong River,” the track that opens the album, begins with the sounds of an orchestra tuning, screechy at first. Soon others join in. The music swells, a cacophany of something that kinda sorta almost sounds like music before finally coming together to become beautiful before you even realize it.
Favorite track: Advanced Falconry
21. Basia Bulat – Tall Tall Shadow
I don’t know who finally flicked the switch on the widespread Basia Bulat love, but thank you. This Canadian singer/songwriter has been busting her ass since 2008, pairing catchy hooks with deeply felt lyricism and a killer, instantly recognizable voice.
Favorite track: Tall Tall Shadow
20. Caitlin Rose – The Stand-In
I remember this record getting some lukewarm reviews when it was released. I listened to it a few times on Spotify before deciding that the critics were full of shit. She’s classified as a country music singer and maybe that’s the label you’re given automatically when you sing and you’re from Nashville. Maybe it’s just a bad country record; I wouldn’t know a good country record from a hole in the outhouse. Okay so there’s slide guitar. A little twang in her voice. Balladry of loves lost. Fine. It’s a country record. Shit. I included a country record in my Top Album countdown. I suppose there’s a first time for everything. Double shit. There are two country songs in my Top Songs countdown.
Favorite track: Only A Clown
19. Postiljonen – Skyer
The heir apparent to Abba’s throne atop the hierarchy of Swedish pop-music. Though other Swedes, such as Robyn and Lykke Li, have vied for the crown, none have managed to combine pop music, craftsmanship and modern electronica in such perfect measure. Neither cheeky nor pretentious. This record can only grow in esteem. Even though it was released in July, I only came upon it in late November. Had I grown attached to it earlier, I could be talking this one up for a Top 5 spot. It’s that good.
Favorite track: Plastic Panorama
18. London Grammar – If You Wait
Florence and the Machine – histrionics + ambient/classical chops = London Grammar. And there’s nary a bad cut on the record.
Favorite track: Strong
17. James Blake – Overgrown
So I’m slowly coming to realize that there are pro-James Blake factions and anti-James Blake factions. Which is weird because he seems like what Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon would be without all the burdensome hype. On the other hand, I might just be surprised that Blake’s not more universally appreciated. I’ve heard him called the reincarnation of Tim Buckley — another musician who wasn’t particularly appreciated in his time. His music haunts me… in all the best ways.
Favorite track: Retrograde
16. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
I don’t know what to do with this record. After first hearing it, I wasn’t wowed. I love the National, but this record left me cold, very one-note. Gone were the old-school National rage-scendos. (Matt’s ragey crescendos that had been excised from High Violet as well.) I’d start the record but never finish it. As I compiled my initial list for favorite tracks of 2013, more and more National songs showed up on the list. 6 total. The most of any other record. How could I dislike the album but like so many of the individual songs? It was maddening. I still haven’t changed my initial impression that this record hits largely the same note over and over again… but it hits that one bloody note so f’ing well that I just can’t ignore it anymore.
Favorite track: Sea of Love
15. Houndmouth – From the Hills Below the City
Apparently this record struck a chord with no one but me. I’ve looked over dozens of year-end lists and nowhere can you find Houndmouth. That’s okay. It’s been in my car selection of discs since its release in June. I know From the Hills churns out the quality American/roots tunes. Comparisons to The Band, Dave Alvin and The Long Ryders resonate. There’s no aspirations to modernize the sound for 2013. Roots rock boiled down, reduced to the original essence. Great musicians (all multi-instrumentalists) playing simple songs, very, very well.
Favorite track: Hey Rose (or Penitentiary)
14. Lady Lamb the Beekeeper – Ripely Pine
Holy out of nowhere despite having a ton of self-released records on her discography. Aly Spaltro began recording music at the age of 15 in the basement of a Brunswick, Maine video store where she worked. There’s so much musical depth to the songs on Ripely Pine, I have a tough time considering her merely a solo folk artist. Horns! In folk songs! Already a local legend in the northeast, it’s time more people heard this brilliant talent.
Favorite track: Aubergine
13. Daughter – If You Leave
Another slow burner that persisted. I liked it from listen #1… but it wasn’t until September or so that I realized that I listened to it all the time. At work. In the car. During morning runs. How do you describe Elena Tonra’s voice to the uninitiated? Depressing, but hopeful? Sedate, but slyly invigorating? It’s witchcraft. Even the tracks that sound more upbeat will tug your heartstrings.
Favorite track: Youth
12. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Was there more pre-release hype for any other record this year? Maybe Kanye, but I promised this would be a Yeezus-free zone so no more mention of that. And Daft Punk delivered a retro-fueled masterpiece, taking back the EDM crown, a crown they didn’t know they ever had in the first place. And perhaps the best accomplishment of 2013? Inadvertently inspiring Colbert to create this brilliant video.
Best track: Get Lucky
11. Tegan & Sara – Heartthrob
The most perfect pop record of 2013 until Haim came along and stole the show. Tegan & Sara have become a finely tuned indie-pop machine, crafting hooks with astounding lyrical resonance since 2007. Taylor Swift ain’t got shit on their heartbreak tracks. Speaking of Taylor Swift, I find the following video really bizarre.
Favorite track: Closer
…and lest I forget this equally bizarre combination…
10. Jon Hopkins – Immunity
The best electronic record of 2013. No contest. Beats, otherworldly synth and layers of glitch and instrumentation. Some might come in here touting Disclosure. And while I’m a big fan of that record, it lacks the same subtlety and depth of focus as Jon Hopkins’ vision in Immunity.
Favorite track: I refuse to remove one track from the record. Listen to the whole thing.
9. Vondelpark – Seabed
I’ll call this my “Poolside record of 2013.” The Poolside record just made me feel good. It didn’t break new ground or astound me in any one particular way. It was just an inherently listenable record. And so it goes with Vondelpark. The London-based band falls under the “dream-pop” or “synth-pop” umbrella but listen closely and you’ll hear Motown, dubstep and maybe even some Ray Conniff.
Favorite track: California Analog Dream
8. Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse
If you’ve been following my lists for a few years (so, like 2 people), you’re probably sick of seeing Frightened Rabbit hang out among my favorites. They even took the top track spot with “The Modern Leper” in 2008. So, yeah, I’m a fan. And this new blissfully remains right in their heavily-accented Scottish wheelhouse. Frank lyrics, rising emotional crescendos and hooks meant to be shouted at concerts. And I’ve done so three times now.
Favorite track: The Woodpile
7. Blue Hawaii – Untogether
Birthed from the same musical scene as Grimes, Blue Hawaii might offer some familiar trappings. They remind me more of Purity Ring, which is a curious thing because I didn’t especially like the Purity Ring record. Untogether is more earnest and personal. There’s a give and take between the artist and the listener, a conversation in the silences between the beats and the glitchy synth.
Favorite track: In Two II
6. Forest Swords – Engravings
Pitchfork called Forest Swords “ominous and sulking.” But it’s not necessarily music for sad sacks. There’s an visceral energy behind the facade of gloom. Give it a listen, but you’ll probably need to give it two or three to let it all sink in. I always find myself entranced, caught up in the moment and conscious of everything around me when listening to this record.
Favorite track: An Hour
5. Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety
I went many moons without bothering to figure out what this artist’s name meant… or even how to pronounce it. So, to spare you the trouble, here’s the explanation: “The name Autre Ne Veut is taken from an inscription in French on a 15th-century British dress ornament that is stored at The Cloisters and is translated to English as “I want no other.” So there you go. The more you know and all that. For pure musical therapy, there was no better record in 2013 than Autre Ne Veut’s Anxiety. Arthur Ashin’s voice might prove to be an acquired taste, erratic and occasionally falsetto, but the music he creates — lush and vibrant 80’s and 90’s-era R&B laced with neuvo-disco undercurrents — tames your raging need for soulful jams.
Favorite track: Play by Play
4. Savages – Silence Yourself
I saw no better show in 2013 than Savages. This record takes me back to a time and place that I was too young to have enjoyed the first time around. Though I’m deluding myself, I can’t help but feel that this is what it was like to hear Joy Division or Siouxsie and the Banshees for the first time. These four women play post-punk the way post-punk was meant to be played, but still make it entirely their own. Another record that never left my car after it’s release and had 1/2 of its tracks in my initial “2013 hits list.”
Favorite track: Shut Up
3. Haim – Days Are Gone
It’s a lazy criticism to write off a band because they play a familiar brand of music. So you’ve heard Haim in Hall & Oates and Stevie Nicks and En Vogue and a bunch of other 80’s pop and R&B acts. And though the three sisters were first embraced by the “indie music” community, Haim’s a band that plays pristine pop music. A playful image, great hooks and fun lyrics. I embraced Haim upon the release of their first EP in 2012 and the full-length exceeded my expectations. I loved these girls even more after the wallowed in their 80’s musical roots during a particularly inspired appearance in an SNL sketch.
Favorite track: Don’t Save Me (orig. released in 2012) or The Wire
2. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
Blown. Away. So much has been written about this record that I don’t know if more words can do it justice. I’d be shocked if Vampire Weekend could ever eclipse this record. Top to bottom, it’s an instant classic and would have easily been my favorite record in just about any other year if it weren’t for one other particular record…
Favorite track: Step… or Diane Young… or Hannah Hunt… or Ya Hey…
1. CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe
If you’ve followed my Twitter feed at all this year, this should come as no surprise. Infectious, crafty, insidiously catchy, poignant and timely synth-pop bliss. The record didn’t leave my turntable for weeks and only eventually found its way back on the shelf because I feared that my other records might unionize. Good synth makes me happy. The CHVRCHES synths elevate me.
Favorite track: The Mother We Share (orig. released on 2012 EP) or Gun