Elite 8: The best albums of 2013

Kurt Vile's Wakin on a Pretty Daze
Landing at number seven is Kurt Vile’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze.

2013 was a fertile year for music. Rap came strong with ASAP Rocky’s debut, the El-P and Killer Mike Run the Jewels collab and more toughboy posturing from Pusha T. Disclosure kept the dancefloor hot with its improbable ‘90s house flashback while Rhye kept bedrooms steamy with their Sade-inspired R&B jams. Janelle Monae stepped forth with a more cosmic sort of soul, less fringe than Ms. Badu, but as quirky and fun as the original godfather: Prince.

Rock stayed real with entries from post-punk revivalists Savages and self-revivalists My Bloody Valentine. Arcade Fire continued their descent into the middle of the road with big anthems and “important” lyrics so unironic and self-unaware that even James Murphy couldn’t save their record; and why would he—everyone’s getting paid. Despite Arcade Fire’s college try, the true composers did show up—Tim Hecker, Oneohtrix Point Never and Julianna Barwick—presenting strong sets of ambient and fractured sounds.

Given this great year of music, we put together a list of eight albums that we think are essential works from 2013—a collection of albums that we encourage you to sit down with, listen to and consider deeply as the winter holiday approaches. We concede that, on some level, lists are ridiculous but hopefully our annual Elite 8 will offer a springboard for discussions which will lead to the discovery of new and old music.

8. Low | The Invisible Way

Quietly overlooked this year, veteran rockers Low dropped a beautiful, restrained record with Jeff Tweedy’s tasteful production touch all over it. The swell of acoustic guitars, thick harmonies and rumbling tom drums lend these songs a folky tinge that pairs magnificently with the band’s slowcore sound. It’s difficult to signify how a band that has made a career out of beauty is any more compelling on their 10th studio album; but when the sweeping choruses rush by on “Just Make it Stop” or the measured and molten outro of “On My Own” slowly erupts, it’s clear that this is an album marked by convincing, startling emotion.

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7. Kurt Vile | Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze

Best suited for long drives or Sunday afternoon inertia, this album unfolds with 11 sun-glazed guitar jams that highlight Vile’s impressive six-string strengths: his slippery, versatile soloing, alluring acoustic picking and remarkable knack for penning chord-based riffs. The subtle psych feel of the record takes cues from Vile’s old band The War on Drugs—he lifts the progression from Slave Ambient’s “Brothers” for “Air Bud”—and the effect is a breezy, deceptively intricate journey that pays off with every subsequent listen.

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6. Parquet Courts | Light Up Gold (reissue)

While the solo on “Yr No Stoner” sounds like it was beamed in from a White Light/White Heat outtake, the chief influence here is the legendary slacker rock of Camper Van Beethoven (CVB). Almost any of Light Up Gold’s ragged pop gems could have found a home on CVB’s 1985 debut Telephone Free Landslide Victory, though Parquet Courts also establish their own signature punk energy through their balance of break-neck rhythms and squealing guitars with well-crafted hooks. The mellow turn of “N Dakota” spins post-teenage angst into jagged Americana beauty while album centerpiece “Stoned and Starving” captures the purview of the New York struggling artist in a slightly subdued, yet slightly urgent voice.

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5. James Blake | Overgrown

Blake continues to expand on a genre of music seemingly of his own creation: the atmospheric convergence of electronic soul, downtempo and hip-hop. While the influences are recognizable, the sum of their parts is unique—Blake’s own personal alchemy. His music casts a haunting fog over the listener: We can feel the tension in the creeping synths and blue-note harmonies—but there is a clear promise of hope in both Blake’s reflective lyrics and his tendency for euphoric plateaus. Lead single “Retrograde” remains one of the year’s best songs and is the blueprint upon which the rest of Overgrown is built: a collection that can deal staggering emotional depth in both its sparest and fullest moments.

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4. The Field | Cupid’s Head

Mining old records, obscure instruments and other forgotten sounds as the basis for samples that unfold into sprawling minimal techno gems, The Field’s Axel Willner has forged a reputation as one of the best—if not the best—in his genre. Each of Willner’s albums has been a meditation on the power of repetition: With its twisting, ever-shifting sounds his debut explored the many faces of a sample and his second effort Yesterday and Today reckoned with the pairing of sampled sounds and live instrumentation.

On Cupid’s Head, it seems Willner is looking closely at the lifespan of a sample. The six songs here, running about an hour in length delve into absolute density as the sounds are stretched to stunning conclusions. Along the way, Willner builds his tracks with subtle, almost imperceptible changes. The effect is remarkable, especially evidenced on the brooding expanse of “They Won’t See Me” and the alternating liberation and claustrophobia that is “No. No … ” As Willner continues to master and shape the boundaries of minimal techno, Cupid’s Head, alongside his previous efforts, is another classic.

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3. Deerhunter | Monomania

Stepping away from the tattered dream-pop of its predecessors, Monomania finds Deerhunter evoking its dirtiest, grungiest sounds yet. Dirty but not sloppy, this band is writing songs with sharp focus. The structures are tight and the arrangements—shifting between wild noise and lilting guitar beauty—are precise and calculated. While the rest of the band’s influence balanced out frontman Bradford Cox’s vision on previous records, this album seems to be his more than anyone else’s; though the ensemble can’t be ignored—their talents graduate this music from the bedroom vibe of Atlas Sound (Cox’s solo project) and reposition it as mainstage rock and roll. The crowning moment here is the title track: “Monomania” unravels from an overdriven garage pop nugget into a full-on elliptical psych jam that eventually resolves in the unsettling roar of a motorcycle engine.

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2. Vampire Weekend | Modern Vampires of the City

Modern Vampires of the City is Vampire Weekend’s best album and, in the realm of indie-pop, the best album of the year. Now in their late-20s, and five years removed from their self-titled debut, principle songwriters Ezra Koenig and Rostam Botmanglij demonstrate impressive amounts of maturity in their compositions, arrangements and lyrics.

Most of the tracks here are accomplished A-Sides, full of rich sonic explorations and detailed, compelling character studies. Alternating between upbeat rockers like “Unbelievers” and “Diane Young” and the wintry balladry of “Step” and “Hannah Hunt,” this is a well-paced, well-balanced journey that feels like a guided tour through the existential crises of the young, educated and upper-middle class. But nothing about it is arrogant or cloying: These guys are just writing about what they know and they are writing about it with poise and insight. The swirling harpsichord and hip-hop percussion of “Step” feels so much like New York they should play it when you land on the tarmac at LaGuardia—you just can’t hate them for moments like this or the propulsive piano outro to “Hannah Hunt” which owes more than a little debt to the lazy-afternoon Manhattan atmospherics pioneered by The Walkmen.

If you didn’t like Vampire Weekend the first two times around it’s unlikely that you’ll completely fall for them on this latest record, but at the very least you will regard them from a distance with respect—after all, this band has always been the musical equivalent of Noah Baumbach, and if you’re not buying the aesthetic you’re just not buying it. The fact remains, few other collectives working with guitars and traditional song structures will match the precision, catchiness and mastery of the slightly populist, slightly arty pop achieved on Modern Vampires of the City. Now let’s head back to the Vineyard before we miss that last ferry …

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1. Kanye West | Yeezus

Yeezus coming in at number one!
Life and death isn’t really at stake here—it’s just a bear market of human emotion interpreted as a matter of life and death. — photo by Mike Barry

This record stands above all other rap and pop records of 2013 and it’s not because of West’s over-the-top, borderline ridiculous, egomaniacal posturing. Rather, Yeezus’ power lies within its effective and progressive production and in West’s lyrical content, which is more unique than anything else in the rap game.

Almost entirely void of rhymes about gangster shit or living on the streets, Yeezus offers a compelling glimpse into the mundane life of the rich and famous. The biggest dramas to be found here are not dope-slinging or bullet-dodging myths but instead treatises on binge drinking and drugging, decadent and crumbling relationships, and the occasional post-hangover reflections on the classism and racism that our anti-hero both abhors and indulges. Life and death isn’t really at stake here—it’s just a bear market of human emotion interpreted as a matter of life and death.

Taken as a whole, it’s all quite genius: both that West is able to break away from the popular constraints of rap lyricism and still be popular and that he is able to tackle our mundane crises—conflicts of the interior—which apply not only to the rich but to most of the rest of us, too. Beyond the humor and eye-rolling reactions to our hero’s arrogant claims, we do leave this record with a reaffirmation of western society’s key problems: our inability to communicate and connect with one another, our insatiable addiction to the cancers of capitalism and commerce and the stifling awareness that we are still racist and classist as fuck.

And then there’s the music. Aside from his usual attention to detail and high production values, West makes great use of his guest singers and tweaks his synthesizers, guitars and samples in all the right ways. The song structures elevate themselves beyond typical verse/chorus formats; some tracks begin on familiar footing but then spiral off into hypnotic third movements (the guitar solo/Frank Ocean outro of “New Slaves”), whereas others deconstruct and reform themselves over a singular musical theme (the ever-pulsing “Hold My Liquor”). Elsewhere, the piano/synth-horn dirge “Blood on the Leaves” nestles itself in three minutes of vocoder musings before West even begins to rap—and even then his verse is only a minor element of the song. His experimentation with classic structures sometimes places our focus on everything but the rhymes—the samples, the sounds—while also making it much more noticeable when he does, in fact, drop a verse.

Many critics expressed that Yeezus breaks into unpredictable, foreign territory, making it West’s most difficult record to access: They missed the point. Yeezus is West’s most focused, stringent effort to date: It encapsulates the best of his grandiose experiments on 808s and Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy into a concise, explosive record.

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