Well, ArtsEtc. readers, we’ve come to the end of another fantastic year in music, which of course means it is time for the much-loved (or dreaded) year-end lists. Given my fairly obvious tendency towards more aggressive releases, this list of ten albums also shares that quality. Nevertheless, in the interest of not ignoring the truly great releases of the year, I also attempted to mention albums outside of my typical sphere of comfort that I felt were excellent representatives of their respective genre. Without further ado, here are my ten favorite releases from 2013.
Lorde – Pure Heroine
Everyone is surely sick of hearing “Royals” by this point, but that doesn’t detract from how legitimately great this album is. Lorde shares here a wonderful, cynical satire replete with wisdom beyond her years, while still dealing with the fears that someone her age goes through. She does all this through surprisingly poetic and well-spoken lyrics. All of this comes through inventive melodies and harmonies and a pervasive, subtle darkness set to mostly minimalistic beats that afford the music a brooding sense of emptiness. This is what pop music should be.
Bad Rabbits – American Love
This funk/soul/R&B group seems poised for stardom with their ludicrously infectious choruses, their throwback ‘70s disco stylings and the unique fact that instead of studio-produced tracks made by synthesizers and computers, they actually perform their music with the help of special pedals attached to their guitars. This album is all about having fun and, like their EP Booties before it, should be in rotation at every party. Lead singer Fredua Boakye has ridiculous vocal range, a silky smooth voice and all the bravado and confidence that an R&B vocalist needs. This—coupled with the band’s seeming inability to pen anything that is not catchy—makes for lovely, if shallow ear candy. With their next album slated to be produced by famed pop/R&B/soul producer Teddy Riley, they may finally get the recognition they deserve.
Plini – Other Things and Sweet Nothings
It may be cheating to put two releases as one entry, but as both are quite short (39 minutes total for both) and share many of the same vibes, it seems fitting. Plini is a guitarist/composer from Australia who is quickly gaining traction in the underground progressive rock/metal scene. His music is difficult to categorize perfectly, but it exists in some nexus between rock, metal, smooth jazz, classical, instrumental R&B and chillout. There is no way to listen to either of these EPs without a smile on your face. This is the soundtrack to relaxation.
Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience
JT’s best release yet does everything pop should and, along with Lorde, is the best pop release of the year. His soulful crooning is as catchy as ever, the subject matter remains relatively shallow and easily digestible and Timbaland creates some fantastic, danceable beats. Pop tracks don’t last over four minutes generally, but the shortest track on this release is 4:47, the longest being a whopping 8:05. Still, none of the tracks grad, and all justify their length; this is all killer and no filler, as a critic stuck in the ‘90s might say. Hopefully other pop artists will follow Timberlake’s template and create albums with substance, rather than collections of short, inconsequential singles destined only for radio popularity and not legitimate analysis.
Gorguts – Colored Sands
This is without doubt the heaviest album on this list, but it’s an album that metal fans should not miss. Gorguts is one of the highest-acclaimed death metal acts around, due in no small part to 1998’s insanely dense Obscura. Unlike many bands that come back after a lengthy hiatus, Gorguts has not been entirely deaf to all the music that has come out in interim. This results in an album that still sounds like Gorguts yet manages to remove itself from the sounds of the band’s heyday. The clearest influence on the band’s songwriting is that of progressive metal masters Opeth, which takes Gorguts from being a technical death metal group to a progressive metal group. That is not to say that the technicality and winding songwriting of their past is gone, it’s now been meshed brilliantly with more varied song structures that keep the 63-minute runtime fresh.
Dance Gavin Dance – Acceptance Speech
This is probably the most fun one can have in an aggressive setting this year. The post-hardcore act continue their genre-bending ways amidst guitar acrobatics and produce one of the best tracks in their extensive and excellent catalogue with “Turn Off the Lights, I’m Watching Back to the Future, Pt. 2.” Due to the band’s party vibes and the abundance of clean vocals mixed with rap-like, syncopated harsh vocals, this album also serves as a great bridge to harsher, more challenging music for those stuck in the mainstream. Check out Paper Radio’s review for a more in-depth explanation of why this album is deserving of a spot on this list.
A Lot Like Birds – No Place
The second post-hardcore entry on this list is nearly the polar opposite of the former, which is made all the more interesting by the fact that A Lot Like Birds is compared to Dance Gavin Dance nearly every time either band comes up in conversation. This is an album brimming with brooding darkness, off-putting creepiness, tortured and emotive vocals and is entirely devoid of any sense of “fun” or accessibility, which, naturally, is all on purpose. A Lot Like Birds set out to release a concept album revolving around the home, explaining why a home is, in fact, not at all the welcoming, comforting thing that it is always seen as. Whether one agrees with the concept is irrelevant, as the music makes an incredibly strong case for the ideas contained therein, and the atmosphere that the band captures is uncanny. This is a very dense album filled with abrasiveness, stark beauty, unorthodox instruments (for the genre), and it will only be appreciated after many listens.
Protest the Hero – Volition
Ignoring the polarizing, overly-personal lyrics of this release, this album is more of the same for fans of the Canadian quintet: high-octane, punk-influenced progressive rock filled to the brim with guitar, bass and vocal acrobatics nearing virtuoso levels of technicality. This clinic of instrumental mastery is wrapped in a catchy and immensely entertaining package that makes it immediately digestible for fans of any music. This album also serves well to summarize Protest the Hero’s career, and thus is a great introduction to a fantastic band.
Deafheaven – Sunbather
Deafheaven’s second full-length release stands out head-and-shoulders above the rest for many reasons, perhaps chief among them being that, in opposition to the tendency of black metal to sound oppressive and chilling, the band chooses to sound happy, uplifting and positively beautiful. The album is clearly rooted in black metal based on the unending tremolo picking, frequent blast-beats, repetitive and meandering song structure and shrill, paint-peeling vocals, yet it does all this ensconced in chord progressions that recall a beautiful sunset. Parts of this album sound like classic black metal, and other parts sound like they belong on a Sonic Youth album (or an alt-rock/shoegaze album). In the sense of uplifting black metal, Sunbather is actually an apt title: were it not for the vocals and the distorted guitars, this could very well be an album that would not be out of place on sunny, warm beaches.
Kayo Dot – Hubardo
Like my favorite album of last year—Swans’ The Seer—this selection is an intimidatingly long (nearly 100-minute) concept album, dauntingly dense, ear-scorchingly abrasive and unabashedly pitch-black in atmosphere. It seems that Kayo Dot have gone out of their way to make this album inaccessible given the seemingly random and hardly musical first track “The Black Stone.” The rest of the album is hardly any more accessible. This is an album that will take tens of listens to fully grasp. It wanders seemingly aimlessly from death metal to black metal to free jazz to post-rock and post-metal to ambient and minimalism and everything in between, placing itself firmly in the avant-garde genre. Everything but the kitchen sink is here instrumentally (and that may be hidden somewhere, too), and the sheer monolithic nature of the album is deserving of a listen. Like everything Kayo Dot has produced, this album is not for the faint of ear. It takes a serious time but, like the old saying, anything worthwhile takes a while. This is an album of legendary proportions and is in a league of its own this year (much like The Seer last year). This is a true musical achievement.
Well, there you have it, dear readers: 2013 distilled down to a mere ten albums. Certainly there were other albums that were worthy of making this list (My Bloody Valentine’s MBV, Dillinger Escape Plan’s One of Us is the Killer, Sigur Rós’ Kveikur, Obliteration’s Black Death Horizon, Ulcerate’s Vermis, Nails’ Abandon All Life, Gris’ A l’âme Enflammee, l’äme Constellée, Kanye West’s Yeezus, The Reign of Kindo’s Play With Fire, Ghostface Killah’s Twelve Ways to Die, etc.), but these ten really stood out among the pack. These are albums that deserve a listen regardless of one’s personal music preferences, and it is my hope that you will all give each one at least one entire spin. Until next year…