Published: 12/26/2013 | 0 Comments Posted
Number 26 on our list overall, Kurt Vile landed the number-one spot for local artists in 2013.
About the list: Kanye? Seriously? We’re as surprised as you are, but: 1) Read on; Bryan Bierman makes a strong case and 2) The process by which we determine the annual Top 21 Rock/Pop/Hip-Hop Albums of the Year is time-tested and basically completely infallible 99 percent of the time: First we collect top-10 lists from City Paper critics, friends, physical therapists, etc. Then we drop all the lists into a giant spreadsheet and assign points based on where the albums rank in the lists. Later, we add some more points based on how much we respect the critic’s opinion, how many times a record was ranked No. 1 and other intangibles. Pretty soon points are getting tossed around like confetti. Then somebody shows me how to sort the data and voila! Yeezus won by a landslide. —Patrick Rapa
Jump to: Albums 11-21 | Albums 22-50
1. Kanye West
Yeezus (Def Jam/Roc-a-Fella)
It may take some time, but Yeezus will go down as one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever made.
Sure, there have been sonic forebears — Saul Williams, Death Grips, Trap music — but when was the last time any artist pushed the boundaries this much, let alone somebody of Kanye’s stature? Yeezus is a thought-provoking, dick-hardeningly great work of art, a record whose industrial-tinged sound and racially charged lyrics completely eschew hand-holding.
There are jarring dance-party moments (“Send It Up,” “I’m In It”), but Yeezus is really a headphone record. On “I Am A God,” Kanye takes rap’s history of braggadocio and turns it on its head by reaching its absurd limits (“I just talked to Jesus/ He said ‘What up, Yeezus?’”), but his blood-curdling screams by the end take it to a new level of gleeful crayness.
Halfway through the glitchy opener “On Sight” is an old choir sample that also serves as Ye’s prophecy: “He’ll give us what we need/ it may not be what we want…” The 80 percent drop in second-week sales and underwhelming tour attendance has proven this to be true. But this is what we need right now. “New Slaves,” West’s cathartic rallying cry against corporate subjugation and private prisons, takes Chuck D’s legendary statement — that hip-hop is the “CNN of the ghetto” — and makes good on the promise: Yeezus is bringing the masses things they won’t hear on the news.
Maybe it is a little absurd that Kim Kardashian’s husband, the man South Park called a “gay fish,” is educating the world about how “the DEA teamed up with the CCA” instead of schools or the media, but sometimes, great art is there to do just that. Praise Yeezus.
2. Arcade Fire
You could hear it almost a decade ago in the rousing choruses of “Wake Up” and the anthemic drive of “Rebellion (Lies)” — Arcade Fire always saw itself as a big band. But on its latest, the Montreal 10-piece is capital-B Big in the best possible way. Reflektor is an ambitious, expansive double LP with songs averaging seven minutes in length. Stadium rockers mix with dancefloor jammers and art-house oddities. The sleeve is done up in a freaking luminous wrap and there’s a photo of two Greco-Roman nude statues peering out at you from the center. There are so many ways this release could have gone wrong, but Reflektor holds up all around. It’s a terrific body of musical work, from the murky disco of the title track to the existential “Here Comes The Nighttime” and the tragicomic catharsis of “Afterlife.” It’s thematically engrossing — reacting to fame and celebrity culture (“Flashbulb Eyes,” “Normal Person”) as readily as 21st-century emotional detachment (“Porno”). It holds up as a piece of art, from its design sensibility to the elements of audio collage that bind it together, but it also boasts the most mainstream appeal of any Arcade Fire release. This, in a nutshell, is what it takes for a band to be Big: creating music that simultaneously appeals to the intelligentsia and the masses, while stalwartly safeguarding your own singular vision.
3. Vampire Weekend
Modern Vampires of the City (XL)
They may yet learn to leave the edges frayed, but for now Vampire Weekend’s baroque pop precision puts them way ahead of the scenesters they were never down with in spirit anyway. These songs are so fully realized and distinct, yet so clearly of a whole, that Koenig/Batmanglij is making a bid to join the ranks of the songwriting partnerships of Jagger/Richards (who were meaner — a virtue — but more full of shit) and Lennon/McCartney (who had more creative tension). Yeah, that’s right; Modern Vampires of the City is that good, that varied, that virtuosic, that alive. And while Ezra’s lyrics have him questioning YHWH (the sonuvabitch is mum, as is His wont) and wondering if the knowledge of one’s own ignorance is worth the proximity to the grave, it’s the simplest line from the record’s most frantic moment that you won’t be able to get out of your head, a précis of the modern condition coming in right after all that ghastly “blood blood blood”: “I don’t wanna live like this. But I don’t wanna die.”
Days Are Gone (Polydor)
There’s so much to love about this sister troupe’s infectious retro/folk/indie pop debut: The touches of Cher in every low-register warble from lead vocalist Danielle Haim; the hazy, warped slow-jam “My Song 5” that could blow out any subwoofer, courtesy of bassist Este; the harmonies that have garnered comparisons to everyone from Fleetwood Mac to Hanson; the California cool-girl attitude evident in songs like “The Wire,” with breakup lyrics that gently condescend like a pat on the back (“You’re gonna be OK anyway,” or in other words, “Dude, you’ll get over it. I surely have.” ). But more than anything else, there’s “Don’t Save Me.” Do you have ears and feet? If so, you will find it physically impossible to not dance to this song. The quick, pounding drumbeat, the ’80s synth keyboard, the Michael Jackson breath pauses and the crescendo into the joyfully dismissive chorus all contribute to the summation of what Haim does best: Make us move.
Pure Heroine (Universal)
Not many people knew who Lorde was until her brightly minimalist, electro-soulful and complexly anti-pop-mat-erialist song “Royals” knocked Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” off the Billboard Top 100. Now the 17-year-old New Zealand native (born Ella Yelich-O’Connor) is BFFs with Taylor Swift and media mogul Tavi Gevinson, and she has become an essential, albeit alien, fixture of the pop landscape. On Pure Heroine, her debut album, Lorde sings about the ephemeral glory of suburban life, but also holograms and hyper-reality. Her lyrics zing like inside jokes meant only for the other kids in the secret society she rules over in her dreams. She makes living in “cities you’ll never see on screens” seem like the coolest thing ever and she fantasizes about riding on her first plane so she can “see the veins of my city like they do in space.” Pure Heroine is filled with these fun but critical perspectival shifts as Lorde transforms outcasts into legends, kids into heroes and forgotten towns into the center of the universe.
The Bones of What You Believe (Glass note)
The Postal Service’s anniversary festivities this year signaled that the 21st-century electro-pop revival is now a full decade deep. So what did 2013’s blog-anointed model offer that we hadn’t heard a hundred times already? More killer hooks? Epic beats? Well, yes, but shouldn’t we be sick of this stuff by now? Chvrches apologists sometimes note, for anyone who still cares, that these Glaswegian upstarts earned their indie-rock bona fides before, as the sage said, selling their guitars and buying synthesizers because they wanted to make something real (“… a Yaz record”). What matters more is that, like all synth-pop greats, they understand that the genre’s power stems from a fundamental juxtaposition: the steely perfection of machine-generated sounds (and make no mistake, Chvrches make some damn perfect, high-definition sounds with their machines — crisp, brittle, pummeling, urgent), contrasted with the fallibility and vulnerability that is our lot as fleshly human animals. That’s why, like The Knife and Purity Ring before them, Chvrches’ lyrics are strewn obsessively with body imagery (teeth, lips, throats and lungs; blood, skin and bone) and the language of violence (plus the faint, glimmering hope of recovery).
—K. Ross Hoffman
7. James Blake
After James Blake released his self-titled debut to wide acclaim in 2011, one question still lingered: If the album’s first two singles — standouts from the disc’s post-dubstep experiments — were both covers, then what could we expect from him as a maker of his own melodies? Overgrown, his Mercury Prize-winning second album, is the answer, with more songs to sing along to and more lines that return to mind after the record’s done playing. He’s still making that brainy British club music that seems to want James Cleveland and D’Angelo for a choir director. Only his trademark fragments appear better seamed, his influences more clear. Nerdy debates over his use of white space seem less important due to the strength of the tunes themselves. Thank heavens, and thank songs like “Peace Be Still,” for that.
8. The National
Trouble Will Find Me (4AD)
Midway through 2010’s High Violet, The National’s Matt Berninger muttered “The floors are falling out from everybody I know.” This time, on Trouble Will Find Me, the walls are closing in. Every record from these Brooklyn Debbie Downers comes loaded with imagery that can only, at best, approximate the kind of white-collar despair and social night terrors resting in Berninger’s baritone purr. Trouble is no different in that regard. The alligators in the sewers, the bullets through rotting fruit, the white girls in crowds of white girls in the park. The careful fear, the dead devotion. Some of these metaphors don’t exactly translate into lucid thoughts, but that’s not the point. Trouble addresses that black-hole anxiety that clings onto our shoulders but can’t find its way off our tongues, like on “Pink Rabbits,” when Berninger confesses to being a “television version of a person with a broken heart.” It’s true, it’s candid and it kills me every time.
9. Chance the Rapper
Acid Rap (self-released)
This free mixtape is a backpack crammed so full of beats, hooks, rhymes, guest appearances and samples that its seams have no business holding together. Trying to figure out how it all fits in there is part of the fun of Acid Rap. What should’ve been a hot mess is closer to a miracle, especially considering that Chance the Rapper is still only 20 years old. His lines are rapid-fire and complicated (he rhymes “suture” and “lose it,” and calls somebody a “tobacco-packing acrobat”), and the inventive beats draw samples from reggae, jazz horns, smoker coughs and vintage video games. Chance’s soulful choruses are maybe the strongest and definitely the prettiest part of the album (“everybody’s somebody’s everything/ Nobody’s nothing”), but most of the time he’s the annoying little brother who keeps tugging on your T-shirt. Nothing is off-limits, from childhood nostalgia (“I miss my diagonal grilled cheeses”) to semi-offensive bravado (“I got a team of hos like Pat Summitt”). Acid Rap is uneven, but feels completely new; by the end, we’re in his corner.
10. Marnie Stern
The Chronicles of Marnia (Kill Rock Stars)
Generally speaking, if one reads that a record is notable for the fretboard finger-taptastic guitar wizardry that pervades each song pretty much from start to finish, it is understandable that he or she would assume that this Yngwie Ray Satriani album is technically impressive but aurally unbearable. But Marnie Stern sounds like nothing else on the planet. She uses her guitar-playing prowess on The Chronicles of Marnia to launch a blazing fleet of songs with seemingly incompatible characteristics — jaggedly busy yet grounded; anthemic yet atmospheric; multivariable, calculus-level mathy yet joyfully hook-laden — and pulls off a perfect landing.
11. The Knife
Shaking the Habitual (Mute)
Listening to Shaking the Habitual feels like plunging your head into an icy stream. Forged in Sweden, land of sugary pop and blackest metal, there is little warmth in the Knife’s bracing and challenging electronic music. Every tone on Shaking rings with vitality and a promise of adventure that captures listeners’ attention with jarring, otherworldly sounds punctuated with pulsating, throbbing beats and Karin Dreijer-Andersson’s icicle-sharp voice. The bedrock of all these sonic layers is Shaking the Habitual’s title, a declarative mission statement that lends cohesion to the 98-minute double album. The Knife purposefully created a battering ram to the gates of inequality, a crowbar to the closed-minded, and a wake-up call to lethargic feet. This is certainly not shopping-mall pop or elevator music; even the 19-minute droning instrumentals hum with a menace that cannot be ignored. Shaking is an album for those who seek discomfort, embrace chaos and dance. Brace yourself.
Silence Yourself (Matador)
Brutality comes in many forms, but few feel as good as a swift kick in the ears from Savages. Silence Yourself, the London post-punk group’s spare, chilly debut, whisks a flashlight around a dark room where unsavory deeds are being done. Ayse Hassan wields her bass like a bludgeon on “Shut Up,” and Fay Milton bashes her drums with controlled fury on “She Will.” Gemma Thompson’s guitar slashes through “Strife” like a knife and tears into “City’s Full” like barbed wire. And Jehnny Beth howls, yelps and bellows a multitude of violent scenarios throughout. “Hit me with your hands,” one character commands. “Oh, it’s the only way I ever learn.” Another sniffs, “You will die, you will die soon/ I give you a quarter of an hour.” Beth’s tone betrays no vulnerability, no trepidation. Savages’ subjects are complicit in their degradation and, unable to tear ourselves away, so are we.
13. Ty Segall
If 2012 was Ty Segall’s busiest — delivering three full-length albums — this year may have been his most interesting. Sleeper, Segall’s sole major release of 2013 after a series of personal losses, eschews his signature fuzz guitar for a mostly unplugged affair, and the newly acoustic warrior’s embrace of Marc Bolan-inspired glam-folk peaks with “6th Street,” the warbling vocals of which suggest an idealized Satanic Majesties-era Rolling Stones. The strings on the standout “She Don’t Care” broaden his sound, but Sleeper’s most fascinating moments are the spidery guitar lines closing “The Keepers” and the ominous finish of “Queen Lullaby,” where a wall of sonic bees suggests some of the strife that may have driven Segall into exploring new terrain.
14. Kacey Musgraves
Same Trailer Different Park (Mercury/Nashville)
This is a fantastic assortment of songs — expertly crafted dissections of small-town small-mindedness, world-weary workplace trash talk and all manner of romantic tribulation. It’s full of fresh spins on familiar metaphors and stacked with hummable tunes. But Same Trailer Different Park is also a brilliantly sequenced album — easing you in with the broadly palatable platitudes of “Silver Lining” and the chipper freewheeling of “My Home” before shifting gears toward a series of increasingly direct, emotionally potent servings of real talk, and saving the best for the two-song gut-punch finale, which balances the giddy, no-holds-barred Nashville-style YOLO anthem “Follow Your Arrow” against the quietly devastating disillusionment of “It Is What It Is.” In an all-around terrific year for female country singer-songwriters, Kacey Musgraves distinguished herself with a knack for articulating universal truths in resoundingly personal terms … or is it vice versa?
—K. Ross Hoffman
15. Danny Brown
Old (Fool’s Gold)
If Kanye West seemed to spend the entirety of 2013 informing us he was a rapper, it’s a good bet Danny Brown spent a comparable amount of time actually rapping. How else could he have filled every dense and magnetic minute of Old, an unrelenting Molotov cocktail of class-clown energy and raw, push-it-forward power? The self-aware MC is not a new archetype, but the Detroit native reinvigorates the boilerplate with party-rap-fluent writing that keeps enough distance from the mainstream to make sure he can still make fun of it. The jokes-on-jokes are tempered by tracks like “Lonely” and “Torture,” which explore how Brown’s rough come-up has never fully loosened its grip on his soul.
16. Janelle Monáe
The Electric Lady (Bad Boy)
This is Janelle Monáe’s second record, and so far she’s two-for-two in tours de force. (See also: 2010’s tightly-constructed The ArchAndroid.) The Electric Lady plays like a perfectly cohesive variety show from the 1970s — assuming all the guests were from Battlestar Galactica, The Bionic Woman, etc. Representing the fourth and fifth parts of her sweeping Metropolis suite — the ongoing tale of an android fugitive — this album is one part ballsy dancefloor gold (the Erykah Badu-assisted “Q.U.E.E.N.”; the exuberant “Dance Apocalyptic”) and one part soulful ballads (the moving “Can’t Live Without Your Love”) that showcase the humanity behind the android superstar. It’s the first time we’ve heard her sounding so relaxed and it suits her. Almost as much as suits suit her.
17. Neko Case
The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (Anti)
The sixth studio album from Neko Case certainly doesn’t want for tumult. True, no one gets mauled to death by an animal on this one. But still. “He died because I murdered him.” “If I’m dipshit drunk on pink perfume, then I am the man in the fucking moon.” And that mother screaming at her child, “Get the fuck away from me! Why don’t you ever shut up?” And, yet there is calm and comfort here as well. The Worse Things Get feels like a work of catharsis for Case, and it has an emotional pull that’s hard to shake off or deny.
Cerulean Salt (Don Giovanni)
There’s something about a burn sung sweet. Maybe it’s that extra bite of misery that comes from knowing you’ve raised the ire of a level-headed soul so much they want to hurt you. There’s at least one killer line like that on Waxahatchee’s catchy and righteously melancholy second record: “You will lick your wounds in only the most crowded room.” Consider yourselves served, pity-partiers of the world. But, hell, Katie Crutchfield delivers lot of killer lines on Cerulean Salt, many of them in the future tense, many of them unfurled with infectious confidence and weariness: “I will grow out of all the empty bottles in my closet/ And you’ll quit having dreams about a swan dive to the hard asphalt.” Crutchfield likes to mix the sugar with the salt in her lyrics, setting foggy, groggy scenes just barely laced with hope. “And it may look like every hour is dictated by the chance of rain/ We won’t melt or die/ We won’t even feel an ounce of pain.” Good. I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m glad it won’t hurt for once.
19. Queens of the Stone Age
…Like Clockwork (Matador)
So strange that one of 2013’s most introspective and heartwrenching records was spawned by a legacy-rock band better known for sinisterity and bravado. Well, thanks to a confidence-shattering trip through the psyche’s most vulnerable places — inspired by frontman Josh Homme’s near-death experience on an operating table — the Queens shed their collective brusqueness to create a haunting album worthy of their prolific, genre-defining career. Channeling the likes of David Bowie and Sir Elton John (who makes an understated cameo on piss-off anthem “Fairweather Friends”), …Like Clockwork opens the band’s robotic proto-metal signature into atmospheric, shimmering beauty on standout epics like “I Appear Missing” and the closing title track. Through it all, Homme paints a picture of fragility and damning uncertainty. QOTSA didn’t bring rock back to the mainstream, but like clockwork, they came back better than ever.
British duo Disclosure opens their breakthrough record with a sample: “How do you stay motivated in the midst of everything that is going on? How do you feel your personal momentum and how do you get in the zone?” It’s a bit of speechifying by Harlem-based motivational speaker ET and, yeah, it gets you in the zone. For their debut, these Surrey-bred dudes were nothing short of calculated, channeling J. Dilla and 4/4 Detroit house, with guest spots from AlunaGeorge, Jessie Ware and London Grammar. It’s settled: Disclosure is for real.
21. Thee Oh Sees
Floating Coffin (Castle face)
Something wicked this way comes. Heavy on hysterical guitars and rushed percussion, Floating Coffin — the latest from prolific San Francisco band Thee Oh Sees — is what you’d want playing at the last dance before the apocalypse. Primal shrieks and war cries dominate the just-under-40-minute album, drowning out the voices mumbling nonessential lyrics. Throughout, these pre-verbal demons won’t let us forget them, sporadically screeching even during the slower moments as sirens wail over throbbing, tortured guitars (see “No Spell”). Only during the final song, “Minotaur,” do frontman John Dwyer’s words become understandable. Soothing strings replace distraught guitars and the seductive spell is suddenly broken.
Rounding out the Top 50:
35. Lady Gaga
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