Janelle Monae, seen performing during the Life is Beautiful festival Oct. 27, has had her album The Electric Lady named to the top 10 of the year by our critics.
Vampire Weeken's Modern Vampires of the City was cited as one of the best recordings of the year. The band played the Life is Beautiful festival Oct. 27.
Kanye West's Yezzus is a "nonstop banger that sounds like no other hip-hop album that came before it," earning it a place in our top 10.
Our music critics didn’t hear all 70,000 albums released in 2013. But they spent a couple thousand hours listening to a few hundred of the most notable ones to compile CityLife’s favorite albums of 2013. Henry Brean and Mike Kalil share their top ten, in alphabetical order.
There’s no denying it: Lyrically, Best Coast is kinda dumb. But a funny thing happens the more you listen to the So-Cal surf-pop stylings of Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno. Dumb starts to sound simple, and simple starts to sound pure. Fade Away is as pure as it gets. At just seven songs, it barely qualifies as an album, but everything good about the band is here in perfect portions. And it finishes awfully strong. “I Don’t Know How,” the waltz-turned-stomp closing track, is quite simply the best Best Coast song yet.
The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You
Her 2009 masterpiece Middle Cyclone is a blood-stained love letter to the natural world. This one grew from someplace personal — a parade of funerals that forced the reigning diva of country noir to confront her past as she buried it in the ground. The result is Neko Case’s darkest, strangest, most expansive work so far. It’s at once raw and fussed over, words spilling out in a clarion confession Case has labored on for years. There are no tornadoes or killer whales this time. This record is haunted by her.
Random Access Memories
For nearly 20 years, Frenchmen Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo have been donning robot helmets and creating stunning electronic music ranging from house to electro to synth-pop. But to construct an elaborate homage to the analog studio magic of decades past (most notably, the ‘70s), the duo recruited an all-star team of collaborators to breathe life into their music. The almost embarrassing riches of players included Nile Rodgers laying down crisp guitar lines on “Get Lucky,” Omar Hakim pounding out propulsive drum fills on “Giorgio by Moroder,” and Julian Casablancas delivering his most emotive vocal in years on “Instant Crush.” Yet many highlights of Random rely heavily on the core duo twirling knobs on their electro-bank of machines. The rising synth coda that Bangalter and De Homem-Christo carefully build and ultimately explode on “Contact” was the most memorable end to an album this year.
We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
Sam France and Jonathan Rado crib from The Beatles, plunder Lou Reed and rob Dylan blind. But their debut full-length as Foxygen is no tidy appropriation. After strip-mining ‘60s and ‘70s artists’ catalogs, they forge their own sound with shambolic playing and jocular lyrics referencing the psychedelic classics they’re aping. “I left my love in San Francisco,” France sings. The answered refrain? “That’s OK. I was bored anyway.” Richard Swift’s vintage production techniques add to the rough-hewn, anachronistic feel. If good artists copy and great artists steal, Foxygen were this year’s consummate thieves.
The Electric Lady
She pulled Prince out of hiding for a rare duet, collaborated with Solange, slow jammed with Miguel and traded verses with Erykah Badu on a song of the year contender. And that was just the first third of The Electric Lady. The hour-long recording is conceptual, concluding Monae’s multi-album tale of an android on the run, in danger of disassembly for a forbidden romance with a human. Recalling prime era Parliament/Funkadelic, Lady features some of the year’s finest six-string work. There’s cinematic spaghetti Western guitar, a pyrotechnic Prince workout, smoldering solos on “Primetime” and “Victory” and a frenetic ukulele underpinning “Dance Apocalyptic.” More than a collection of jams, this is a pop/R&B masterpiece crammed with meticulously arranged mini-symphonies.
Trouble Will Find Me
America’s finest purveyors of sad-bastard music return with their latest album-of-the-year contender, a pop-rock sigh in the face of failure. You might not always understand what singer-songwriter Matt Berninger is so blue about, but the aching combination of piano, strings and his enveloping baritone will certainly make you feel it. Berninger sums up the languid mood nicely on the standout track “Pink Rabbits”: “You said it would be painless, a needle in the dark. You said it would be painless, but it wasn’t that at all.” Or, if a wallow in the dark isn’t what you you’re looking for, simply lose yourself in Bryan Devendorf’s amazing drum work. Your toes will tap as you wonder where it all went wrong.
Matthew Houck, the singer-songwriter who performs as Phosphorescent, has been releasing well-received folk-tinged rock records for a decade. At times, his material recalled Bob Dylan, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Willie Nelson or Neil Young. But Muchacho is the first time he hit upon a sound distinctly his own, one cradled in copious instrumentation: crunching guitars, vamping pianos, swirling organs, mariachi brass, fluttering synths and weeping pedal steel are just some of the elements behind Houck’s world-weary vocals. The standout “Song for Zula” may be about a caged panda lost in nostalgia, but the rest of Muchacho’s lyrics relate the human condition, cataloguing the pathos from heartbreak to hard-won redemption.
Modern Vampires of the City
At their worst, the boys of Vampire Weekend seem like sons of ivy-covered privilege, who discovered island rhythms on a yacht trip to Bermuda during spring break from boarding school. At their best, they are an indie rock band as imagined by Wes Anderson - quirky, smart and meticulously rendered, if not a little troubled. Modern Vampires of the City is their masterwork. It’s a grown-up version of “Rushmore’s” Max Fischer, glancing sidelong at his own advancing years. As frontman Ezra Koenig shouts on “Diane Young,” the album’s bouncy and inventive first single: “Live my life in self-defense. You know I love the past, ‘cause I hate suspense.” Ruminations on aging and death have rarely sounded so catchy or fun.
Songwriter Katie Crutchfield recorded the first Waxahatchee record in her bedroom, and it sounds like it. The production values are a bit better on Cerulean Salt, but the cleaner sound only accentuates the raw simplicity of her music somehow. The album ticks by quickly - 13 songs in just 33 minutes, including four tracks that don’t even crack the two-minute mark - but you will feel like you’ve been somewhere important by the end. It’s a cleaner, folksier Exile in Guyville. It’s a quieter Last Splash. It’s one of the year’s most unexpected gifts.
West has always had maddeningly offensive tendencies, and he cranks them to 11 on Yeezus. He turns “Strange Fruit” — the most potent protest song of the civil rights struggle — into a relationship song sample. That’s right after he warps an MLK quote into a crude jeer (“Your titties, let ‘em out/free at last/Thank God almighty, free at last”). Ugh. But nowhere else this year was there so much wrong and so much right on the same album. From the snarling synths that open “On Sight” to the 40 transfixing minutes that follow it, the album never stops its abrasive, aural assault. It’s a nonstop banger that sounds like no other hip hop album that came before it. West takes risks, riles feathers and sometimes fails. But his stumbles often end up more interesting than his peers’ strides.
The Year in Music, A Miscellany of Greatness
“I want to know, does it bother you, the low click of a ticking clock?/There’s a headstone right in front of you and everyone I know.” - Vampire Weekend, “Don’t Lie”
“There’s no need to be an asshole/You’re not in Brooklyn anymore.” - Foxygen, “No Destruction”
“Don’t tell me there’s no way your mind will change./Even the leaves grow weary of the trees from which they came.” - Torres, “When Winter’s Over”
“Is your brother on a church kick?/Seems like just a different kind of dope sick/Better off to teach a dog a card trick/And try to have a point and make it clear” - Jason Isbell, “Relatively Easy”
“See I was slow to understand this river’s bigger than I am/It’s running faster than I can, though lord I tried.” - Phosphorescent, “Muchacho’s Tune”
“But if there’s no music up in heaven, then what’s it for?” - Arcade Fire, “Here Comes the Night Time”
“The booty don’t lie.” - Janelle Monae, “Q.U.E.E.N.”
Great Videos of 2013
Beach House, “Wishes”
Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone”
Disclosure feat. AlunaGeorge, “White Noise”
Django Django, “WOR”
Fiona Apple, “Hot Knife”
Is Tropical, “Dancing Anymore”
Kanye West, “Bound 2” (James Franco and Seth Rogen version)
Passion Pit, “Cry Like A Ghost”
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Despair”
Great New Band Names:
Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats
Great Surprises of 2013
Superchunk, still rocking like it’s 1995.
Musicians who are funny on Twitter, especially Jason Isbell, John Roderick from the The Long Winters, Rhett Miller and Neko Case.
New ads scored with songs by Sleigh Bells and Kanye West, because selling out should at least sound good.
Sleater-Kinney reunited on stage for the first time since 2006, even if it was just to perform “Rockin’ in the Free World” with Pearl Jam.
After 17 years of waiting for a new Mazzy Star record, what we get is Seasons of Your Day.
After 22 years of waiting for a new My Bloody Valentine record, what we get is m b v.
The Pixies. Dear lord, the Pixies.
Great Songs Not On Our Favorite Albums (A Spotify playlist)
Arcade Fire, “Here Comes the Night Time”
James Blake, “Retrograde”
Danny Brown feat. Purity Ring, “25 Bucks”
Cayucas, “A Summer Thing”
Chvrches, “The Mother We Share”
Flashlights, “Don’t Take Me Seriously”
Foals, “My Number”
Frightened Rabbit, “Dead Now”
Glass Candy, “Warm In the Winter”
Golden Grrrls, “Date It”
Haim, “The Wire”
Jason Isbell, “Relatively Easy”
Valerie June, “Somebody to Love”
King Krule, “Easy, Easy”
Cate Le Bon, “Are You With Me Now?”
Los Campesinos!, “As Lucerne/The Low”
Kacey Musgraves, “Follow Your Arrow”
Rogue Wave, “Siren’s Song”
Smith Westerns, “Varsity”
Superchunk, “Low F”
Torres, “When Winter’s Over”
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Despair”
Youth Lagoon, “Mute”
Yo La Tengo, “Before We Run”