The Top 50 Albums of 2013

[I had meant to publish this about a month ago, but writing up blurbs about 50 albums proved to take much more time than I had available. So instead of being posted "on time", it's "late" ... but all that means is that I get the last word on 2013. Woo!]

2013 was a great year for music. Now for someone writing about music, maybe that’s about as cliche as the President annually declaring that “the state of our union is strong”, but I’m not quite that predictable. Notably, I thought that 2012 was pretty disappointing, with its parade of one underwhelming or mediocre release after the next.

After so many albums fell flat in 2012, I was definitely ready to move along to new releases in 2013. Early in the year, I found so many albums to look forward to that I needed to start maintaining a list just to keep up. Good records aren’t just made of anticipation though and albums can fall flat anytime. But one by one, 2013′s releases delivered the goods. A wide net cast in fear of a high failure rate turned into a veritable cornucopia of outstanding 2013 releases. In fact, there were so many great records released in 2013 that I couldn’t contain my year-end list to my top 30 albums. This year, the list ballooned to 50, with a heaping helping of honorable mentions to boot.

The only catch was that Amazon’s mp3 store pricing changed this year. Two or three years ago, Amazon’s aggressive pricing in its mp3 store converted me from only buying physical media to being (mostly) a purchaser of digital downloads. But if it was the price point that pushed me into digital downloads, it was also the pricing that pushed me away. When Amazon’s “sale” prices on mp3 albums rose to $7.99 this year, I stopped buying and waited for old sale prices to return… and they never did.

One consequence of this was that my listening environment for the year lacked diversity. I couldn’t soundtrack my work day with new music on my iPod, I couldn’t burn discs of new albums to play in my car. It meant lots of listening at home, (usually) after work, at night on Spotify (I do find it ironic that Amazon would push me to be more reliant on renting music than buying it, but that’s another discussion for another day).

Since there was so much good stuff to hear and I had less time in which to listen, it meant that I spent a lot less time with my favorite albums in 2013 than I had in years past. That, in turn, made compiling this list even harder than it ordinarily has been.

Unlike the last two years when there were two or three albums jockeying for the top spot, I wasn’t able to spend enough time with this year’s releases for any of them to create much separation from the pack… at least not for more than about a month at a time. I think that if I had spent more time with these albums, it might have created more separation and more clearly-defined favorites, but that’s not what we have today. Instead, what we have are a bumper crop of very good albums and some difficult choices atop the list.

But before we get to that, here’s the honorable mentions that – on a different day – might have appeared at the bottom of the list. These tend to fall into three groups. First, there are the albums that had features that I really liked and other bits that I didn’t. Maybe I didn’t quite connect with them on the first go-round, but I can imagine revisiting them in a few months to find that I regret not putting them in my top ten. Albums like The Haxan Cloak’s Excavation, Deafheaven’s Sunbather, Julia Holter’s Loud City Song, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Push the Sky Away, Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest, Oneohtrix Point Never’s R Plus Seven and Mountains’ Centralia all fall into this bucket.

Then there’s some more accessible albums that were good and enjoyable; albums that I might put in the top 50 next month, but probably not in the top half of the list. Those would include Portugal. The Man’s Evil Friends, Franz Ferdinand’s Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action, Phoenix’s Entertainment, Classixx’s Hanging Gardens, Mikal Cronin’s MCII, Karl Bartos’ Off the Record, the Appleseed Cast’s Illumination Ritual and Melt Yourself Down’s self-titled release.

Anyway, enough reading. You’ve been waiting long enough. Time for the list! Album titles link to the album on Spotify and highlighted tracks link to the songs on Soundcloud [s] or YouTube [y].

50. Teeth of the Sea – Master
Responder [y]
Reaper [y]
49. Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time
24 Hours [s]
You’re Not The One [s]
48. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Mosquito
Sacrilege [y]
Despair [y]
47. Bibio – Silver Wilkinson
À tout à l’heure [y]
You [s]
46. Cayucas – Bigfoot
High School Lover [s]
Cayucos [s]
45. Deltron 3030 – Event II
City Rising From the Ashes [s]
What is This Loneliness? (Radio Edit) [s]
44. Kvelertak – Meir
Kvelertak [s]
Bruane Brenn [s]
43. Goldfrapp – Tales of Us
Drew [s]
Annabel [y]
42. Man Man – On Oni Pond
Head On [s]
Loot My Body [y]
41. Atlas Genius – When It Was Now
If So [s]
Trojans [s]
40. William Tyler – Impossible Truth
Cadillac Desert [s]
A Portait of Sarah [y]
39. Washed Out – Paracosm
It All Feels Right [s]
Don’t Give Up [s]
38. Moon Hooch – Moon Hooch
Low 4 [y]
Number 9 [s]
37. AlunaGeorge – Body Music
Attracting Flies [s]
Kaleidoscope Love [s]
36. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – English Electric
Metroland [s]
Night Café [s]
35. Foxygen – We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
San Francisco [s]
No Destruction [y]
34. Shugo Tokumaru – In Focus?
Decorate [s]
Katachi [s]
33. Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse
Late March, Death March [s]
Holy [y]
32. John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
Black Belt [s]
GMF [s]
31. Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe
The Mother We Share [s]
Lies [s]
30. !!! – Thr!!!er
One Girl/One Boy [y]
Californiyeah [y]
29. Delorean – Apar
Spirit [y]
Dominion [y]
28. Savages – Silence Yourself
She Will [y]
Shut Up [y]
27. Ricardo Donoso – As Iron Sharpens Iron, One Verse Sharpens Another
The Sphinx [s]
The Redeemer [s]
26. Pond – Hobo Rocket
Xanman [s]
Giant Tortoise [s]
25. Yo La Tengo – Fade
Ohm [y]
Is That Enough? [y]
24. Solar Bears – Supermigration
Our Future is Underground [s]
Happiness is a Warm Spacestation [s]
23. Veronica Falls – Waiting For Something To Happen
Waiting for Something to Happen [s]
My Heart Beats [s]
22. Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety
Play By Play [s]
Ego Free Sex Free [y]
21. Postiljonen – Skyer
Plastic Panorama [s]
Atlantis [s]
20. Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium
Down the Deep River [s]
Stay Young [s]
19. Jon Hopkins – Immunity
Open Eye Signal [s]
Collider [s]
18. Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob
Closer [s]
I Couldn’t Be Your Friend [s]
17. Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks
Satellite [y]
While I’m Still Here [y]
16. Chris Forsyth – Solar Motel
Solar Motel: Parts I & II [s]
15. Son Lux – Lanterns
Lost It To Trying [s]
Easy [s]
14. Jagwar Ma – Howlin
Come Save Me [s]
The Throw [s]
13. Unknown Mortal Orchestra- II
So Good at Being in Trouble [s]
Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark) [s]
12. Suede – Bloodsports
It Starts and Ends With You [y]
For the Strangers [y]
11. Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady
Q.U.E.E.N. [y]
Dance Apocalyptic [y]
10. Pure Bathing Culture – Moon Tides
Pendulum [s]
Dream the Dare [s]
9. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Afterlife [y]
Reflektor [y]
8. Yamantaka // Sonic Titan – Uzu
One [s]
Windflower [s]
7. Holy Ghost! – Dynamics
Dumb Disco Ideas [s]
Don’t Look Down [s]
6. Darkside – Psychic
Golden Arrow [s]
Paper Trails [s]
5. Eleanor Friedberger – Personal Record
When I Knew [y]
Stare at the Sun [s]
4. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Fragments of Time [y]
Instant Crush [y]
3. Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus
Stalker [y]
Hidden X’s [y]
2. Forest Swords – Engravings
Thor’s Stone [s]
The Weight of Gold [s]
1. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
Ya Hey [y]
Unbelievers [y]
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366TAS: Beyond 7:55

The trip from 1:50 to 7:55 is complete and we’ve enjoyed a bunch of great music across all of those times. Early in the year, I mentioned some of the better songs shorter than 1:50. Obviously, there’s a limited set of options there; you can only make a song so short and there’s only so much you can do with a shorter time. But what about the epic anthems that run longer than the times we sampled? There’s a lot more of those, including some highly celebrated songs, many of which are as renowned for their length as their greatness. Here’s a quick survey of 70 of the songs too long to make the cut over the last year. They’re not always the best long song by that particular artist and they aren’t always the longest the artist has to offer, although the list does end with the longest single track in my library…

7:58 – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – More News from Nowhere
7:59 – Weezer – Only in Dreams
8:00 – Steely Dan – Aja
8:01 – Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – No More Shoes
8:03 – Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven
8:06 – Primal Scream – Come Together
8:14 – Faith No More – The Real Thing
8:14 – Phish – Maze
8:16 – The J.B.’s – It’s Not the Express, It’s the J.B.’s Monaurail (Parts 1 & 2)
8:16 – Simian Mobile Disco – Thousand Year Egg
8:17 – Medeski, Martin & Wood – We’re So Happy
8:17 – Red Hot Chili Peppers – Sir Psycho Sexy
8:21 – The Beta Band – She’s the One
8:22 – Ministry – Scarecrow
8:26 – Destroyer – Suicide Demo for Kara Walker
8:27 – Metallica – Orion
8:28 – Ricardo Donoso – The Bow and the Lyre
8:31 – Drums and Tuba – No Accomodation for Buffalo
8:33 – Yes – Roundabout
8:34 – Bob Dylan – Hurricane
8:35 – M83 – Couleurs
8:37 – Don McLean – American Pie
8:39 – The Chemical Brothers – The Sunshine Underground
8:41 – Prince – Purple Rain
8:46 – Bill Callahan – One Fine Morning
8:48 – The Polyphonic Spree – Suitcase Calling
8:51 – Spiritualized – Hey Jane
8:52 – Digital Underground – Doowutchyalike
8:54 – Cloud Nothings – Wasted Days
8:54 – Genesis – Tonight, Tonight, Tonight
8:57 – Guns N’ Roses – November Rain
8:59 – The Phenomenal Handclap Band – The Circle is Broken
9:02 – Gogol Bordello – Baro Foro
9:12 – DJ Shadow – Blood on the Motorway
9:12 – The Allman Brothers – Back Where it All Begins
9:21 – The Propellerheads – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
9:25 – Kraftwerk – Autobahn
9:26 – Parliament – Aqua Boogie (A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop)
9:29 – Stereolab – Outer Bongolia
9:34 – Bruce Springsteen – Jungleland
9:37 – Rush – La Villa Strangiato
9:39 – Alaksa! – The Light
9:41 – Music Go Music – Warm in the Shadows
9:49 – The Outlaws – Green Grass and High Tides
9:50 – Discodeine – Figures in a Soundscape
9:52 – Nurse With Wound – Two Shaves and a Shine (Concerto For Bouzouki And 3 Piece Rock Group In 93 Six Second Segments)
9:57 – Frank Ocean – Pyramids
10:00 – Daft Punk – Too Long
10:07 – Explosions in the Sky – Let Me Back In
10:08 – Lynyrd Skynyrd – Free Bird
10:21 – Swans – The Apostate (Edit)
10:54 – Royal Space Force – Uber Code
10:55 – Cat Power – Nothin But Time
10:56 – The Doors – When the Music’s Over
11:00 – Cannonball Adderley – Autumn Leaves
11:06 – Creedence Clearwater Revival – I Heard it Through the Grapevine
11:22 – Gang Gang Dance – Glass Jar
11:27 – moe. – Rebubula
13:31 – Pink Floyd – Shine on You Crazy Diamond (Parts 1-5)
14:02 – Titus Andronicus – The Battle of Hampton Roads
14:19 – Dire Straits – Telegraph Road
15:07 – Cut Copy – Sun God
15:45 – Herbie Hancock – Chameleon
16:04 – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Cappriccio Italien, Op. 45
16:19 – Mogwai – Mogwai Fear Satan
17:02 – Iron Butterfly – In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida
20:07 – Godspeed You! Black Emperor – We Drift Like Worried Fire
30:15 – Santana – Freeway (live)
46:05 – LCD Soundsystem – 45:33

Here’s a Spotify playlist to give you a taste of most of these selections (note that several are unavailable on Spotify):

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366TAS: 7:55 – Stereolab – Metronomic Underground

As the 366TAS project comes to a close today, I’ve saved (one of) the best for last. Stereolab is one of my very favorite bands. A framed copy of one of their albums hangs on my wall, one of their song titles serves as my nom de plume and only Belle and Sebastian (109) and Pink Floyd (108) place more songs in my iTunes library than Stereolab’s 98. When the band played DC supporting the 2008 release of their album, Chemical Chords, I went to the show and came home with one of the best bits of merch booth I’ve ever seen at a show: the Stereolab laundry bag!

The Stereolab laundry bag!By the time I got around to listening to Stereolab in the early 2000′s, they had been a going concern for about a decade. However, their lack of commercial success meant they got no airplay on the radio. As a result, I hadn’t heard of them for most of their career and when I finally did, I had no idea if they were the kind of thing I would have liked. I was also a poor college student at the time, so I couldn’t just go out and take a flyer on all the bands that I heard some good buzz about. Being a reasonably tech-savvy 21st century youth, I did what most music fans of the era would do: I turned to file sharing services to find out.

Sure enough, I downloaded a few tracks and really liked what I heard out of Stereolab. Their rich sonic blend of pop, lounge and krautrock, heavy on vintage keyboards and breezy guitars was a refreshing break from the countless interchangeable bands that dominated alternative rock radio and the singer/songwriter types with whom WYEP was so enamored.

Shortly after graduation, I moved down to Gaithersburg, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. Within a few months, I had started working 12 hour days doing document review. The work was miserable and the commute – an hour each way – may have been worse. The good news was that I finally had some spare cash to start buying albums again and my first purchase, one that came to define what I listened to during the six months I spent in Gaithersburg, was the Warren Zevon anthology and a pair of Stereolab albums. My daily trips from home to the Metro were often soundtracked by Stereolab’s Margerine Eclipse (the album now on my wall) and before I got my first iPod toward the end of that project, these few minutes in my car were often the highlight of my day.

Since then, my Stereolab collection has grown substantially and they’ve spent several years in my regular rotation as an essential influence. Although I was oblivious to Stereolab’s work for far too much of their career, I was fortunate to get on the bandwagon when I did, because shortly after I saw them live in 2009, they went on indefinite hiatus. Hopefully, they’ll reunite sometime in the future, but if not, they’ve left us with a great treasure trove of music filled with odd sounds and odder song titles.

For me, none of this experience would have been possible without file sharing. Now I understand full well that there are those who abuse the system, sucking up the music like a leech. However, the discovery function that they provided for me was invaluable. After all, nobody loves a band they’ve never heard of.

Nowadays, the availability of streaming services places a ton of great music out there for anyone to discover their own personal Stereolab, and that’s great for fans. As we’ve found this year, however, it’s not such a great arrangement for the artists. As more and more people shift their listening patterns to streaming-only, the economic question becomes all the more pressing for artists. Much more well-informed people than I have pondered the issue of fair compensation for artists all year and, as far as I’m aware, they’ve come up empty so far.

I continue to use Spotify regularly to listen to new music, but I can’t quite imagine it taking the place of actual album purchases. Right now, I have a budget of about $20 a month that I’ll spend to buy new music. More often than not, that’s mp3 albums, but I do still buy a few favorites on CD. I’m a little old-fashioned like that. To some folks, this music-purchasing regime may sound extravagant, but it’s less than a Starbucks habit of two trips a week, and I’m pretty sure I enjoy a lot of the music I’m buying a lot more than you like your cup of coffee. For a truly great album, I’m sure that it’s “worth” all of the misses that come with the territory of finding those few hits. So go out and buy a few albums. It’ll make you happy in the long run.

I’ve found a way to make this work for me. How can it work for you? How can you hear about bands you’ve never heard of? Well I like to think that I’ve hopefully introduced you to a few new names throughout this past year with the 366TAS project. Beyond that, there’s loads of music blogs to read, year-end lists of recommendations and even something as simple as browsing Wikipedia entries can help lead you to new bands and musicians. With so much information and music at your fingertips, “I haven’t heard of them” is no longer a valid reason to “not like” a band.

Otherwise, stay tuned to Corsairs Affairs. Even as the 366TAS project has come to a conclusion, I’ll be carrying on with playlists, polls and other music recommendations going forward. Oh, and here’s Stereolab to take us home…

Metronomic Underground – Stereolab

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366TAS: 7:54 – VHS or Beta – Solid Gold

I wonder if you were to take a survey of kids in college today, how many of them would understand what would be up for decision when asked to choose between VHS or Beta. I mean, they probably haven’t heard of LaserDiscs either, but I suppose that’s kind of understandable. The band is of relatively recent vintage, putting out their first album in 2004, so they were referencing obsolete technology from the get-go. That has a certain retro coolness to it and sometimes the etymology of a band name is enlightening, but it’s one that more and more kids are going to have to investigate going forward.

Solid Gold – VHS or Beta

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366TAS: 7:53 – Boards of Canada – Happy Cycling

Back in the good old days, bands were up front about where they came from. Boston was from Boston, Kansas was from Kansas, Chicago was from Chicago, Europe was from Europe (Sweden, to be specific). It was simple, life was good. But what’s in a name has changed and you just can’t be certain about a bands’ origins anymore. I’m From Barcelona isn’t actually from Barcelona; they’re from Sweden. Architecture in Helsinki is only in Helsinki if they’re on a world tour, because they hail from Australia. The Japandroids are Canadian, unlike Boards of Canada, who are Scottish.

Boards of Canada also gets bonus credit for great song titles like “Under the Coke Sign”, “Turquoise Hexagon Sun”, “Oscar See Through Red Eye”, “Everything You Do is a Balloon”, “Sherbet Head” and “Pete Standing Alone”.

Happy Cycling – Boards of Canada

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366TAS: 7:52 – Massive Attack – Protection

Although several genres, including Britpop, neo-swing, ska and the countless indistinguishable “alternative” bands attained a certain level of popularity in the 90′s, my experience has been that when most people think of “90′s music”, the conversation typically focuses on grunge. Given the way that Seattle’s grunge scene dominated the early part of the decade, that’s not entirely unreasonable, but while US audiences were looking to the upper northwest, UK music fans were starting to get excited about the happenings going on in Bristol where acts like Portishead, Tricky and Massive Attack were at the forefront of the trip-hop movement.

Although they never experienced substantial commercial success in the US, all three acts placed albums in the top ten of the UK charts, with Portishead hitting #2 three times and Massive Attack placing four albums in the top six, with a fifth at #13. “Protection” is the title track from their second album, released in 1994.

Protection – Massive Attack

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366TAS: 7:51 – Jaga Jazzist – All I Know is Tonight

If you head over to Amazon’s mp3 store and look my seventh-ranked album of 2012, Ricardo Donoso’s Assimilating the Shadow, you’ll see that “Shadow Aspect” has a running time of 7:51. When you buy the album and import it into iTunes, however, it clocks in at 7:52 (or, more precisely, 7:51.562, which is then rounded up to 7:52). So instead of one of my favorite albums of the year (now duly noted), we’ll go with Jaga Jazzist’s “All I Know is Tonight”.

Jaga Jazzist rose to prominence when the BBC named their 2002 album Livingroom Hush as the best jazz album of the year. Stylistically, they’re have a more progressive style than the classical jazz that probably springs to mind and a track like “All I Know is Tonight” can help you see how the fine minds at Wikipedia would go so far as to classify the band as a post-rock act. One other fun tidbit: Jaga Jazzist joins Sondre Lerche as the second (and Last) Norwegian artist to show up on the list.

All I Know is Tonight – Jaga Jazzist

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