In many ways, 2013 proved to be a challenging and difficult year. The economy continues to struggle, Congress doesn’t work, acts of extreme violence dominate the news, and the NSA is right behind you right now. Music’s response? Screw it; let’s dance. The amount of quality music that also happened to be catchy as hell that came out in 2013 was staggering, and many bands reinvented their sounds in ways that blended old styles with something a bit more upbeat.
As always, this list can hardly claim to be comprehensive, but these are 12 great albums that came out in 2013 that pushed the boundaries of what it means to make music with great curiosity and ambition:
12) Franz Ferdinand, Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action – More unapologetically upbeat than their most recent work, Action follows 2013’s mantra of dancing your troubles away. It also finds the band returning to the winning balance of hooks, substance, and pub-crawl wit that made their first two albums so great.
Essential Listening: “Right Action”, “Goodbye Lovers and Friends”
11) Nine Inch Nails, Hesitation Marks – After an extended hiatus that saw its leader win a friggin’ Oscar, NIN returned in 2013 with an album that reflects the finely tuned soundscapes Trent Reznor helped create as a film composer. Marks is full of several unexpected detours in which Reznor lulls you into a sense of complacency before radically changing directions, particularly in the standout “Copy of a”.
Essential Listening: “Copy of a”, “All Time Low”
10) David Bowie, The Next Day – Speaking of returns to form, Bowie came from nowhere this year and surprised everyone with the release of The Next Day. This is no paycheck album, either – one of the best pure rock albums of the year, Day has an energy running through it that trumps many bands half Bowie’s age.
Essential Listening: “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”, “Dancing Out In Space”
9) HAIM, Days Are Gone – Few albums this year were likely to be as catchy as Days Are Gone, but what makes HAIM’s debut effort stand out is the masterful construction behind each song. The Haim sisters have a particular propensity for rhythmic vitality, as their melodies boast a unique blend of pop and hip-hop, and their grooves feature a discombobulated flow that rarely utilizes conventional patterns.
Essential Listening: “The Wire”, “Forever”
8) The Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio 2 – Picking up where last year’s phenomenal Black Radio left off, this sequel is more of a straight-ahead R&B record than its predecessor. Which is all relative – Glasper continues to create music in a space that draws from R&B, hip-hop, and jazz genres without fully committing any of them, and his combination of jazz harmonies with hip-hop grooves still sounds fresh.
Essential Listening: “I Stand Alone”, “Let It Ride”
7) Dr. Dog, B-Room – Well-written and well-produced, B-Room melds its influences seamlessly by synthesizing several generations of rock, folk, and soul into a willfully blemished finished product. Essentially, the album is an all-encompassing account of what Americana has been throughout the years, as made evident in the one-two punch at the album’s center of the soul-baring ballad “Too Weak to Ramble” giving way to the backwoods stomp of “Long Way Down”.
Essential Listening: “Long Way Down”, “Distant Light”
6) Elvis Costello & The Roots, Wise Up Ghost – Continuing their astonishing winning streak, The Roots get together with latest strange bedfellow Elvis Costello to produce a refreshing homage to early R&B. Costello’s cockney rasp works surprisingly well with The Roots’ fuzzy hip-hop groove, and Ghost combines the strengths of both its collaborators to forge something unique.
Essential Listening: “Wise Up Ghost”, “Refuse to Be Saved”
5) Daft Punk, Random Access Memories – As a newcomer to Daft Punk, it’s difficult for me to appreciate the change in sound they undertook with RAM. What’s so appealing about the album, though, is that Daft Punk have created an album that has both an immediate appeal and surprising depth. The abundance of hooks makes for a shiny finish, but every track features a carefully constructed tapestry of sounds that invite repeated listenings.
Essential Listening (non-“Get Lucky” division): “Lose Yourself to Dance”, “Fragments of Time”
4) Arcade Fire, Reflektor – AF’s first three albums, which mixed folk music with amphitheatre-primed riffs and gusto, have proven to be tremendously influential on the current state of popular music. Much to their credit, Reflektor sees them staying a step ahead of their usurpers by welcoming influences as diverse as disco and Haitian folk music. This kind of adventurous spirit is always welcome, and AF manage to create an exciting new sound that is still rooted in the band’s quaint, communal qualities.
Essential Listening: “Reflektor”, “Here Comes the Night Time”
3) Queens of the Stoneage, …Like Clockwork – Perhaps influenced by Josh Homme’s numerous musical dalliances since QOTSA’s last album (2006’s Era Vulgaris), Clockwork is arguably the band’s most diverse and widely-accessible effort. The album features vintage QOTSA steam-engine-to-hell rockers (“My God Is the Sun”), haunting ballads (“…Like Clockwork”), and even a trace of disco (“If I Had a Tail”). Homme’s experience producing outside acts like Arctic Monkeys has also paid dividends here, as this is the cleanest his gloomy desert vibe has ever been.
Essential Listening: “My God Is the Sun”, “I Sat By the Ocean”
2) Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City – VW’s first two albums, while tremendously enjoyable on their own, demonstrated great potential for musical curiosity. Modern is a deftly mature pop record that fully realizes the band’s desire for exploration without being overtly experimental. Careful scrutiny reveals that these seemingly simple songs feature very little literal repetition. For example, “Diane Young” (a deceptively subversive radio-friendly single) takes a simple melody and chord structure and runs wild with guitar effects, drum beats, and (gasp!) auto-tune to create a whiplash listening experience that – like the album as a whole – remains unpredictable and never devolves into schtick.
Essential Listening: “Diane Young”, “Unbelievers”
1) Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle – I can’t recall ever hearing an album that is simultaneously so simple yet ambitious. Marling, an English singer-songwriter, sings with a heady coo that recalls Joni Mitchell if she was reincarnated as an alto, though this is not the only parallel that can be drawn between them. With Eagle, Marling crafts a modern folk masterpiece, filled with gorgeous songs that are orchestrated in a way that enhances the music without ever distracting from it. Most impressively, Eagle is a structural marvel – musically, the album breaks into three distinct sections defined by their use of motives and general aesthetic vibes (“Take the Night Off” through “Master Hunter”, “Little Love Caster” through “Undine”, “Where Can I Go?” through “Saved These Words”), with the first five tracks all being built abstractly around the same riff (there is no break in the music until after the fifth track, “Master Hunter”). Not only that, but the riff returns in the album’s closer (“Saved These Words”), thus satisfying the musical journey on which Marling embarks. The album works on so many levels, and it’s a riveting listen whether it’s your first or tenth.
Essential Listening: “Undine”, “Master Hunter”