Killer Mike and El-P - Run the Jewels
Avicii - True
Janelle Monáe - The Electric Lady
Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Mosquito
Foxygen - We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
Hanni El Khatib - Head in the Dirt
Caitlin Rose - The Stand-In
Charli XCX - True Romance
Darkside - Psychic
Waxahatchee - Cerulean Salt
10. San Cisco - San Cisco
Listen: Awkward, Hunter
San Cisco revitalizes the art of guy/gal call-and-response indie twee pop in this year’s most surprisingly charming release. Equal parts Vampire Weekend, Darwin Deez, and Juno OST, “San Cisco” is an infectious romp featuring sock hop anthems from beginning to end, and one of the best under-the-radar masterpieces of 2013.
9. King Krule - 6 Feet Beneath The Moon
Listen: Neptune Estate, A Lizard State
It’s difficult to categorize King Krule’s raspy blend of rock ‘n roll. This British ginger’s gravelly crooning hits a spectrum of notes, from spoken word to hip hop, from jukebox rock to grunge. “6 Feet Beneath the Moon” is raw and emotional, aggressive and sensitive all at once. Top notch bass riffs accompany achy vocals on an album that begs to be heard by any fans of the stylish or bleak.
8. Phosphorescent - Muchacho de Lujo
Listen: Song for Zula, Muchachos Theme
Phosphorescent has long toyed with M.Ward-styled country rock, but has never found as much success as it has in this year’s “Muchacho de Lujo.” Lead vocalist Matthew Houck guides listeners through familiar melodies with his twangy croon, eliciting vast waves of melancholic nostalgia. These tracks play like weathered scrap book pages, sometimes regretful and other times strikingly beautiful and exhausting either way. “Muchacho de Lujo” is a beautifully rambling album seemingly composed on the road for the road.
7. Little Green Cars - Absolute Zero
Listen: Harper Lee, Big Red Dragon
It’s a wonder that Little Green Cars managed to fly under the radar of so many publications in 2013. “Absolute Zero” is a delightful romp through wintertime folk pop. From the moment the album roars to life with “Harper Lee,” Little Green Cars establish themselves at the top of the hay bale pile, following it up immediately with 10 more equally catchy sing-alongs. The tracks are oftentimes playful, sometimes humorously morbid, and occasionally heartbreaking. The band even toys with their inner Discovery on “Red and Blue,” employing a very Ezra Koenig auto tune on a warm departure from the otherwise notably winter album.
6. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
Listen: Reflektor, Normal Person
The Arcade Fire moved on from dreamlike obsessions with childhood and the suburbs this year and made an attempt to pierce the veil with their darkest, most brooding release yet. “Reflektor” is a forbidding album in two parts, wrought with the heady literary references and ghostly French vocals that The Arcade Fire is known for. It’s easy to become cynical about an act that after winning the Grammy for Album of the Year had the audacity to enforce a dress code of finery at their live shows, but all of the glam and showmanship reveal a straight-laced commentary on the genre as a whole. The Arcade Fire simultaneously reject and exemplify everything detestable about the indie hype machine, but do so in an undeniably applaudable fashion. Beneath the pretentious veneer is an array of absolutely genius moments—from the aptly placed David Bowie cameo on the title track, to the screeching rambling that accompanies “Normal Person” and the sprawling yet sharp “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)”—as well as the inspired idea to bring on LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy as producer.
5. Arctic Monkeys - AM
Listen: Arabella, No. 1 Party Anthem
My relationship with Arctic Monkeys has been a tumultuous one. Their debut U.S. single “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” is one of the most singularly polarizing tracks I’ve ever heard, inspiring nauseous distaste upon first hearing it and then undeniable love and nostalgia later in life. “Favourite Worst Nightmare” and “Humbug” were exceptional albums that eventually and surprisingly were eclipsed by the pristine and heartbreaking solo-work of Alex Turner on the soundtrack to “Submarine.” Following this, “Suck it and See” was comparatively disappointing, the highlight “Piledriver Waltz” simply being a reworked shadow of the superior version found on “Submarine.”
A lot hinged on “AM,” which may be the most quintessential Arctic Monkeys album yet. The album pulls no punches, from beginning to end it’s a greaser prom night. “Do I Wanna Know” rumbles like a motorcycle on concrete, revving with smoldering grace into a full-throttle sucker punch that is “R U Mine?” The album then drunkenly stumbles into two slow burners: “One For the Road” and “Arabella,” the latter of which features perhaps the best lyric of the year in “Arabella’s got a ‘70s head / But she’s a modern lover / It’s an exploration / She’s made of outer space,” as well as one of the most effective rock riffs of the year. “AM” is pure bar rock for the Pitchfork reader, a greaser battle splayed out on vinyl. With black eyes on ice and teeth on the floor, things slow down for the exceptional “No. 1 Party Anthem” and “Mad Sounds,” probably the most typical track for the band on the album.
And that’s just the first half of the album, the second half of which features just as many high points. “AM” is undeniable with its feverish energy dripping with the group’s characteristic sense of danger and sexuality. The album is a jukebox classic for the blogger era.
4. Paramore - Paramore
Listen: Now, Still into You
“Paramore” is an effective retrospective, not only for the band who first charmed emo and pop punk fans by covering their faces with fake blood on FUSE for their “Emergency” video, but for female-fronted rock in general. The band experiments by trying on the sounds of iconic female rockers—from Yeah Yeah Yeahs, to Metric, to Hole, to Gloria Estefan, to Paula Abdul—with the end result being an intoxicating sonic wax museum fronted by the always charismatic Hayley Williams.
Much of the album hinges on Williams’ energy and playfulness, transforming otherwise straightforward lyrics into powerhouse statements of toothy chagrin, and providing moments of vulnerability on the album’s three ukulele interludes.
The band breaks out of its comfort zone and realizes growth on every track, and in almost every aspect of production. The end result is a surprisingly deep series of tracks making up one of the most fun albums of the year.
3. Lorde - Pure Heroine
Listen: Royals, Team, 400 Lux
This year, the musical universe was graced by the presence of Lorde, a 16-year-old New Zealand prodigy with a penchant for hip hop beats and gothic punk styling who crossed genres and broke the glass ceiling of alternative music, becoming the first woman to have a #1 alternative record since Tracy Bonham’s “Mother Mother” more than 17 years ago.
Not only is “Pure Heroine” a nearly perfect pop record, with grizzly flair and heartbreakingly sweet lyrics that reference feudal-era warfare in one breath and sipping orange juice with a significant other in another, but its deluxe edition featuring the precursory “Love Club EP” reveals the astronomically brilliant year this artist has had. Essentially, Lorde has given the gift of 15 pristine tracks in the span of 365 days. Arguments about whether her lyrical content—which invites question as to whether or not she’s racially insensitive or just wants America to stop colonizing the pop culture zeitgeists of other nations with its pro-capitalist-consumerist values—aside, this is a monumental achievement for an artist so young and has put this oddball starlet on the map, becoming one of the most demanded artists on tour.
2. Kanye West - Yeezus
Listen: Black Skinhead, Hold My Liquor, Blood on the Leaves, Bound 2
Yeezy season approached sometime in spring this year, and never really let up. It seems that Kanye West releases a new magnum opus every year, and this one was no exception. “Yeezus” is an astounding record. Few artists have the ability to reference so many moods and artifacts in a single short body of work, or to make them so fluent and downright profound as Kanye. The album has won fans throughout the music industry, including the late Lou Reed, and for great reason.
“Yeezus” defies genre. It’s the best hip hop album of the year, but more importantly one of the best rock ‘n roll albums to be released this decade. Soul samples and appearances from regular collaborator Justin Vernon, as well as signature auto tuned vocals from ‘Ye compound the lyrical nature of his compositions to the point where he resembles more Jack White or Lou Reed than T.I. or Wu-Tang.
Kanye’s reinvented the game on “Yeezus,” and, love him or hate him, the prowess and skill that the immaculate album exhibits is undeniable. From the raucous “On Sight,” to the cheeseball romance parody “Bound 2” there isn’t a single moment where this album doesn’t leave a jaw on the floor. Factor in absolute gamechangers “Black Skinhead,” “Hold My Liquor,” and “Blood on the Leaves,” along with the critical showstopper “New Slaves” and it’s hard to find a sonic fault in this expansive, lofty, and demanding album from a man so many write off over public persona.
1. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
Listen: Diane Young, Step, Hannah Hunt, Don't Lie
2013 had a lot in common with 2010 so far as my AOTY list is concerned. Both feature an album produced by James Murphy, several controversial non-raters so far as major pubs are concerned, and both battles for the top spot came down to the wire between Kanye West and Vampire Weekend. While 2010’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Future” beat out “Contra” for its expansive operatic fairytale that stomped off criticisms of Yeezy’s autotune abuse, Vampire Weekend managed to come out on top this year with the lush “Modern Vampires of the City.”
Vampire Weekend only improves with each release, pushing their sound to new limits while retaining their distinct baroque-college-chamber pop sound and forming lyrics more elusive and ingenious than ever before. “Modern Vampires of the City” succeeds on a multitude of lyrics. Each of the songs is a snapshot of a different millennial apocalypse, wrought with a sense of doom and ennui that betrays the snappy tunes and upbeat drums. The formula hasn’t changed much, there’s the obvious snappy lead single in “Diane Young,” the slowburning brood of “Obvious Bicycle,” and the side-line singles “Unbelievers” and “Step.” But there’s also “Hannah Hunt,” a tale of agrarian roadtrip romance which against the boxed-in urban despair provides a pinhole of immaculate beauty. Whereas the other tracks are deceptively remorseful tales of how a city can become a cage, wrought with hints of suicide and decay (“There's a headstone right in front of you / And everyone I know”), “Hannah Hunt” focuses on discussions of botany and ideas of hope, all while featuring the album’s most desperate and melancholy melody.
Ezra Koenig is the laurite of hip banter poems, and every utterance from his obscured interviews and incomprehensible Twitter ramblings reflect it. His lyrics tend to subdue this fact, instead becoming abstract mantras. What the songs and chasm-like allusions mean in the end is completely up to the listener. They’re referential webs of Forer effect set pieces, litmus tests against which listeners can deposit their modern hopes and fears. It is these hopes and fears that the album, a sort of vampire in its own right, drains from us, providing reassurance to a deeply unsure generation.