Another year, another top albums list (some things changed, though — we turned 5 years old!). We asked Knox Road writers to provide their Top Albums of 2013. You know what ensued. Tears, laughter, debate. Actually not much of any of those. Just heartfelt thoughts. If these lists make you listen to one new album, it was all worth it. Have a happy holiday season and stay warm.
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This was a weird year for music. For a while it seemed like every musician was trying to make the album nobody liked. There was the divisive “Yeezus,” MGMT’s so-called anti-MGMT album, and more references to “Paradise Lost” than anyone could have anticipated. Still, there wasn’t an overall attempt at artistic exploration so much as there was a desire to stand out.
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. With feet firmly planted in the age of digital music distribution, musicians are struggling for a way to differentiate their sound from all the other musicians also trying to differentiate their sounds. Kanye West’s bold record showcases that growing claustrophobia like no one else. Jay-Z’s sorry followup seemed naive by comparison, firmly planting the flag of the new generation of musicians. What that flag represents has yet to be seen.
With that in mind, I chose my top albums of the year based largely on craft. And while I’ve missed a few major releases (most notably “MBV” and Bill Callahan’s “Dream River”), I’ve heard plenty of brilliantly-written records that could fill five lists over. But as is my duty, as a sworn writer of music, I’ve whittled everything I heard in 2013 to a simple top 10.
1. Kanye West: Yeezus
Simple fact: Kanye released the boldest, most inventive record of the year. His lyrics aren’t great, and the whole thing felt rushed, but that’s just further testament to how great his musical leaps were. Hip-hop didn’t know it could use a heavy-handed dose of Chicago industrial music, and neither did we. And sure, Yeezy is an arrogant jackass, but what great artist isn’t?
2. Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City
There are a lot of stereotypes surrounding Vampire Weekend — the same sort that one imagines surround sweater-clad white folk sailing off the coast of Rhode Island — but the band has a knack for deftly parrying those stereotypes with consistently well-written albums that innovate in ways that challenge their dwindling mass of critics. On “Modern Vampires of the City” the band continues to mature in a brilliant direction.
3. Chance the Rapper: Acid Rap
A self-released debut album from a 20-year-old up-and-coming rapper is an unlikely candidate for album of the year, but “Acid Rap” by Chicago’s own Chance the Rapper is no ordinary debut. On “Good Ass Intro” he tells us we love it: “This your favorite fucking album I ain’t even fucking done.”
4. The Knife: Shaking the Habitual
The Knife spent seven years working on a follow-up to “Silent Shout,” letting expectations build to monumental levels. Instead of giving into expectations, the group delved deeper into the dark, beating heart of their sound to produce an album both rich and disturbing.
5. Julianna Barwick: Nepenthe
The title of “Nepenthe” comes from the fictional drug of forgetfulness, thought to cure sorrow. Inspired by a death in the family, Barwick’s thoughtful, dreamy record belongs in a moonlit field, healing through tranquility.
6. Juana Molina: Wed 21
The sixth album by the Argentinian singer-songwriter is as beautiful as it is eccentric. Coupling South American flavor with pop sensibilities and bold experimentation, Molina succeeds in crafting a wholly unique, yet completely listenable record.
7. Phosphorescent: Muchacho
Born from the ruins of Matthew Houck’s troubled life, “Muchacho” rises from the ashes with spirit and grace with the amazing “Song for Zula,” before rolling right on with a laugh and a nod on “Ride On/Right On.” The two pair as well as Houck’s heartache folk pairs with Mexican cantinas.
8. Darkside: Psychic
It’s easy to dismiss Darkside as a buzz band. Their synthesized stoner jams come with hipster-bait titles like “Golden Arrow” and “Paper Trails,” but musically the duo is legitimate. Few debuts this year showed as much potential.
9. Of Montreal: Lousy with Sylvenbriar
Of Montreal is a band that has continued to evolve, through the brilliant “Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?” and the less-than-brilliant “False Priest.” Following the apex of their self-deprecating literary experimental phase, last year’s “Paralytic Stalks,” the band brilliantly diverted into Dylan-era folk rock, with extraordinary results.
10. Jagwar Ma: Howlin
There’s always room for experimental electronic rock, as far as I’m concerned, and Jagwar Ma’s excellent debut “Howlin’” expertly fills the void LCD Soundsystem left open. They smoothly cross over into the psychedelic garage realm, particularly with the immediately appealing “Let Her Go,” giving the band room to grow in a variety of directions.
It was an interesting year. The best of times (mbv). The worst of times (“Get Lucky” to the point of an aneurism…practically). But mostly the best of times. More solid releases by veteran bands I’ve been listening to forever than in any other of my KR years PLUS lots of delicious newbies. So without further ado…the most spins in Abbytown 2013, the shortlist (in no particular order):
The Pastels – Slow Summits
Jagwar Ma – Howlin’
My Bloody Valentine – mbv
Cloud Control – Dream Cave
Yo La Tengo – Fade
Grumbling Fur – Glynnaestra
Golden Grrrls – Golden Grrrls
Veronica Falls – Waiting for Something to Happen
Caspian – Hymn for the Greatest Generation (EP)
Pure Bathing Culture – Moon Tides
Bonus: winner of best collection or reissue of 2013 goes to Cherry Red’s Scared to Get Happy (A Story of Indie-Pop 1980-1989)
The Big Five
1. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
The accepted narrative for Modern Vampires of the City goes like this – Vampire Weekend used to be a gimmicky band making mediocre music, and with this mature, beautiful album they proved they are truly great. For me, Modern Vampires is just another perfect album from a band that’s made three of them. Yes, it’s deeper, darker and more polished, but it’s still the same band. And they’ve always been great.
2. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Bold, unique, different. A grower.
3. Lucius – Wildewoman
They’re gonna blow up.
4. Kanye West – Yeezus
He changed the game, again.
5. Laura Stevenson – Wheel
The most overlooked album of the year, and it’s not even close. Passionate, catchy, memorable music.
Other albums I loved
Volcano Choir – Repave
Avett Brothers – Magpie and the Dandelion
Foxygen – We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap
Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium
Justin Timberlake – 20/20 Experience Part One
Guilty pleasure, but not really
John Mayer – Paradise Valley
Liking John Mayer is supposed to be an embarrassing admission. But I’m unashamed – as usual, he’s made another really nice, calming album. If you like good music, you’ll like it.
“for last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice. and to make an end is to make a beginning.” – t.s. elliot
I’ve heard the argument that the new year is a random date based on an archaic calendar, that new year’s resolutions are arbitrary, that real change doesn’t need to wait for a specific date but should instead be spontaneous, like daffodils popping up in the green on the side of the freeway. I’ve heard those arguments. and yes, you realists, you are right. but there’s also such joy in the communal nature of everyone coming together and celebrating a year gone, and especially, a new year come.
there’s such joy in the reminder that we’re never as young as we are now.
as all good years are, this was such a mix of good and hard and sad and growth for me. and, as all good years do, it is ending in the most beautiful way it could. so instead of listing my top ten albums from this year, I’m talking about the most influential, the most personal album I experienced this year. I hope you enjoy.
arcade fire: reflektor 
the first time I heard this album, I was 2 weeks into what would turn into a 7-week plus roadtrip across america with my boyfriend. we were in louisiana – having just left new orleans – and were headed toward austin when we pressed play. originally, we left philadelphia for a two day trip to visit my sister in washington dc; we simply never turned back home, opting instead to drive down to tennessee. 7 weeks later – through dallas, denver, salt lake city, los angeles, central california and san francisco — we’re still not home, and I’m writing this from hawaii. we’re due back in san francisco tonight, where we’ll pick up our car from the airport and drive north to oregon, seattle, montana, south dakota, and chicago, finally pointing the car south and east and home to philadelphia. reflektor is an amazing album, but I’m not arguing that it’s the best of the year. as all the best albums are, however; as all the best music is; as all music should be; it’s been the soundtrack to one of the most amazing experiences of my life and I can’t separate “here comes the night time” from driving the mountains of kaneohe, swimming lanikai, smuggling beers on the beach and not applying enough sun screen. I also can’t hear “joan of arc” without thinking of the hours my boyfriend and I spent driving the rocky mountains, trying to navigate black ice and staring at the amazing outburst of stars popcorn-ing throughout the night sky. for the entirety of the rest of my life, I will hear the dancey, billie jean-esque beat of “we exist” and think of the sprawling, tangling, bleached bone-white texas plains. with the rest of the world, we danced to “reflektor” at various clubs, at varying levels of intoxication, with various intensity of hangovers the next day depending on whether we drank water before bed; but this album has become personal, intimate. my boyfriend and I started dating three weeks before we left; the majority of our relationship has been this roadtrip and the majority of our relationship has been soundtracked by reflektor. in the best way possible, reflektor is personal and universal; intimate, tiny, quiet and entirely vast. It facilitates instead of directs. and – most importantly — it occupies the small place in my heart that this roadtrip will always hold.
Favorites of 2013
1. Superchunk – I Hate Music
2. Wooden Shjips – Back to Land
3. Califone – Stitches
4. Jason Isbell – Southeastern
5. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
6. Jim James – Regions of Light and Sound of God
7. Rodan – Fifteen Quiet Years
8. Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
9. White Hills – So You Are… So You’ll Be
10. Washed Out – Paracosm
11. Tim Hecker – Virgins
12. Polvo – Siberia
13. Kurt Vile – Wakin’ On a Pretty Daze
14. Mikal Cronin – MCII
15. Charles Bradley – Victim of Love
Favorites that came about before 2013
1. Prissy Clerks – Bruise or Be Bruised
2. Housemartins LPs
3. All 70′s Moody Blues albums
4. All things Harry Nilsson, particularly the Nilsson Sings Newman LP
5. Randy Newman’s first three albums
6. Silkworm – Lifestyle, and Italian Platinum LPs. If you’re not listening to Silkworm you are missing out.
7. All the Tame Impala records
8. Any Pontiak album I can get my hands on
1. Savages – Silence Yourself
Driven by a fierce imperative to ‘emancipate’ the masses and ‘never let the fuckers get you down,’ UK’s Savages are a symbol of something that goes beyond their ‘post-punk’ influences. Having been together for a little over a year (amazing, considering their sonic precision), Savages have managed to take a sense of purpose and turn it into the best record of the year, period, and the best debut in a long time. Just don’t call them ‘feminists,’ or try to compare them to Joy Division (for your own sake), and if you see them live, get off your fucking phone before Jehnny Beth cracks your eye socket with her ruby red stilettos, forcing you to blindly read their intense cap-locked manifesto from ‘Silence Yourself.’ This is a serious record, and it comes close to building that purposeful connection that bands like the Clash, and maybe only the Clash, understood so well in the late-‘70s. If you ask me, Savages are punk, and if you remove all the hype-band nonsense that now has their record available at corporate-hipster stops like Urban Outfitters, ‘Silence Yourself’ is an artful form of punk we haven’t seen since Wire’s ’154,’ a record you’ll never find at Urban Outfitters. Just don’t call them ‘post-punk’ and please, seriously, never buy their record from Urban fucking Outfitters.
2. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
3. Kanye West – Yeezus
4. The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
5. Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold
6. Speedy Ortiz – Major Arcana
7. California X – California X
8. Phosphorescent – Muchacho
9. Marnie Stern – The Chronicles of Marnia
10. Deafheaven – Sunbather
I certainly did not get a chance to listen to nearly as much as I would have liked this year in terms of new albums, but I spent a lot of time simply listening to what I enjoyed.
Lucius - Wildewoman
Phosphorescent - Muchacho
Houses - A Quiet Darkness
Julianna Barwick - Nepenthe
Haim – Days Are Gone
Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
The Lone Bellow – The Lone Bellow
Typhoon – White Lighter
Deptford Goth – Life After Defo
Mikal Cronin – MCII
The Paper Kites - Woodland EP (Previously released in Australia)