Back when I worked in record stores, my boss Daryl used to tell me that as long as there was something among Tuesday’s new releases that he could fall in love with, he knew he hadn’t overstayed his time on the job. I can’t say that I find a new record to love every week, but I think there’s enough new stuff to like each year that I still enjoy creating this list of favorites.
This is the first year I bought more music digitally than I did on CD. This is mostly due to having moved away from the East Coast and the excellent Newbury Comics chain, my weekly haven for both music and comics. Even though I live pretty close to the wonderful Lou’s Records in Encinitas, life is busy enough that I don’t make it there too often. The other factor is that I’ve really embraced Amazon’s Cloud Player, which makes it ridiculously easy to access my music across devices.
Anyway, without further ado, here’s my favorites for what’s proven to be an excellent year of music.
> > Like It < <
The Civil Wars – The Civil Wars – Their last album, Barton Hollow, was my favorite of 2011. Though their sound is as pristine and precise as ever, why don’t I regard this album more highly? Perhaps the public turmoil that all but broke up the band weighed down the chemistry and charm the duo once shared. Whatever the case, this album strikes all the right notes and boasts a handful of standout songs, but its heart doesn’t quite hold up.
Lorde – Pure Heroine – To be honest, I don’t know how to feel about Lorde. As a teen pop singer dominating the charts, I wonder if her dark, brooding image is genuine or carefully crafted. Maybe it’s both. In any case, what I can’t deny is that I like the minimal arrangements of these songs as much as the formidable hooks themselves. If she doesn’t fall into self-parody, Lorde just might become a musical force that’s going to be around a while. And hey, there’s certainly been a lot of far worse stuff on the charts lately.
Goldfrapp – Tales of Us – This collection of torch songs with a pulsing beat is more mellow than some of her previous work, but it makes an excellent album to just chill out and enjoy.
Keep Shelly In Athens – At Home – This was a good year for female-led dark synth groups, and Keep Shelly falls into that satisfying middle ground between the manic turbulence of Crystal Castles and the driving pop of Chvrches. Brooding and sexy, with a bit of an edge.
Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks -Returning from a (sort of) lengthy hiatus during which he was anything but dormant, Trent Reznor released the Nine Inch Nails album you pretty much expected him to make. The songs are solid, the lyrics are personal, and the music stays current and relatively safe. Good, but not as great as I’d hoped it would be.
Phoenix – Bankrupt! – The French group Phoenix delivered yet another album of satisfying power-pop that gets your feet tapping and head bobbing.
Placebo – Loud Like Love – These stalwarts of androgynous alterna-glam are still getting it done. Worth it for the sexy swagger of “Rob the Bank” alone.
Small Black – Limits of Desire – Unabashedly harkening back to the New Romantic era of 80s synth-pop, these grooves are poppy and accessible enough to sound both familiar and fresh. The standout track here is “Breathless,” though there are others worth the money as well.
Tom Jones – Spirit in the Room – A mix of gospel songs and covers of the likes of Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, the amazing Mr. Jones still possesses a voice most young pop stars should envy. “Bad As Me” is the perfect song to sum up an amazing career.
Toro Y Moi – Anything in Return – Though there’s a lot of funky goodness to groove along to in this catchy set, at times it feels a bit all-over-the-place. There’s a hint of Steely Dan in some of these tracks, and I consider that a good thing.
Atoms for Peace – Amok – Another Radiohead side project, this disc sees Thom Yorke’s familiar lilting vocals paired with Flea’s insistent bass lines. Very good, but at some point the sonic similarity of these songs starts to work against them just a bit.
The Olms - The Olms – Though most of Pete Yorn’s solo work doesn’t move my needle, there’s something about the 60s feel of this collaboration with J.D. King that I find particularly appealing. Catchy pop with a hint of gloom about the edges.
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Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady – The funky and gorgeous Ms. Monae delivers yet another futuristic concept album disguised as catchy R&B that even the most reluctant booty can’t refuse. Though perhaps just a half-step off the grandeur of The Arch-Android, this record’s eclectic mix of styles brings a genuine smile to my face. Despite some pretty formidable guest stars, Monae shines front and center. Also, it’s about robots and stuff.
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories – You couldn’t go anywhere in the first half of the year without hearing about Daft Punk and their rather ingenious media campaign (before Miley started stealing all the attention by just being naked). While I wouldn’t say Random Access Memories is revolutionary, it takes the four-on-the-floor disco beat and hones it to pop perfection. Endearing guest turns from the likes of Giorgio Moroder and the amazing Paul Williams just reinforce how much there is here to love.
Sting – The Last Ship – The music of the Police helped me survive high school, and Sting’s first several solo albums remain favorites. But for the past decade, Sting has released a series of live and eclectic (almost novelty) albums far from the pop sensibilities that made him famous. So when I heard he was releasing an album of songs written for a Broadway musical, I nearly shrugged it off. I’m glad I didn’t. The Last Ship is Sting’s most genuine album since The Soul Cages, a record it shares a lot of thematic ground with. In these tales drawing on Sting’s youth in the Newcastle shipyards, we meet characters who feel honest and real, centered on relatable tales of love and family. These are good songs that feel genuine, a welcome return to form that hopefully Sting can carry forward into future material.
Bosnian Rainbows – Bosnian Rainbows – Fans saddened by the hiatus of The Mars Volta may take solace in the rise of Bosnian Rainbows, whose debut album is at turns catchy, driving, and challenging. They feed off the energy and bite of early Blondie, Berlin, and even Missing Persons without falling into pop schmaltz.
Caitlin Rose – The Stand-In – I challenge you to listen to this record without picturing yourself downing whiskey in a forlorn honky-tonk. Rose has that classic country croon that is both mesmerizing and heartbreaking, with a smoky sexiness that drives its way directly into your ear holes. Down one for me.
David Bowie – The Next Day – Though he was never truly gone, the return of David Bowie was one of the most welcome surprises of 2013. His absence might have been timed just exactly right to remind us all how crafty and brilliant a songwriter Bowie remains. Echoes of his glam days are knowingly mixed with both self- and world-awareness that bring an air of honesty that few artists today have the credibility to offer.
Daughter – If You Leave – Mix spare guitars, haunting synth washes, and dusky female vocals and you’ll pretty much guarantee me to listen. But the songs of Daughter transcend the parts, culminating in a mesmerizing mix that reminds me of early Cat Power records. Also well worth purchasing are the His Young Heart and The Wild Youth EPs.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away – Nick Cave long ago traded his thunderous wailing for a more quiet, subtle kind of menace–well, mostly–but he still sounds like a preacher spinning ominous cautionary tales from a shadowy pulpit. His recent records contrast those dark tales with a fragile beauty, proving how deft a touch the Bad Seeds retain after all these years together. The closing title track brings this record to a satisfying conclusion that leaves me hungry for more, and with an artist of Cave’s longevity, that’s saying something.
Jail Weddings – Meltdown: A Declaration of Unpopular Emotion – If you take the aforementioned fury of Nick Cave and wrap it up in some 50s doo-wop and rockabilly as filtered through the Cramps, you have an idea of what Jail Weddings is all about. “Why Is It So Hard to Be Good?” is a standout track that captures the essence of this excellent band, as shifting tempos build to a danceable beat that makes you want to howl with reckless abandon. It all feels slightly naughty, which is part of what makes it so damn good.
> > Gotta Have It < <
Elvis Costello and the Roots – Wise Up Ghost – An artist with as many varied collaborations as Costello has had might come across as needy or desperate, but albums co-penned with the likes of Burt Bacharach and Allen Toussaint portray a genuine love for music in all its forms and styles. Wise Up Ghost is no exception; what might have looked like an aging pop star hitching his wagon to a younger, hipper train instead feels like a genuine partnership of musical equals–even contemporaries. This has as much to do with the Roots as Costello, for ?uestlove and crew share the same broad tastes and appreciation for musical history as their collaborator. The result is a set of catchy, intelligent songs with tight production and virtuoso musicianship. This one’s not to be missed.
Savages – Silence Yourself – I had assumed, upon hearing Silence Yourself for the first time, that Savages must be made up of veterans of various punk, pop, and hardcore bands. You’ll have to forgive me for being mistaken; this band of newbies attacked with such blistering force, burning from the first bar, that it only made sense that they’d been around the scene forever. While you’ll hear echoes of Siouxsie and Wire and other bands both retro and modern, the sharpness and fury is all the band’s own. I love how this record at first feels like a bristling challenge, but soon starts to feel familiar–like you’ve earned your way to listen to it. I’ve played the hell out of this album and always find something satisfying about it.
Arcade Fire – Reflektor – While by no means the band’s sophomore effort, Reflektor does bear some of the trappings of second-album syndrome. After the critical and commercial success of The Suburbs, how was the band going to move forward? Would they produce something lackluster like the Killer’s second album? Or would they spiral into self-indulgence a la U2’s Zooropa? Personally I don’t think they’ve done either, though they seem to willingly and delightfully dance on the precipice of the latter. Songs like the title track ground themselves in disco beats, while dub (the reggae kind, not dubstep) weaves its way through several songs as well. Yet the indie rock pillar of the band remains strong, and the songs themselves never get lost even when the trappings skirt the edge of excess. At the end of the day, this is a great record of powerful songs worthy of Arcade Fire’s name.
Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe – The thing I find so compelling about this album is the layers. On the surface, Chvrches offers danceable electronic catchiness that is instantly likeable and could easily occupy a spot atop the pop charts. But the more you listen, the more a depth and vulnerability cuts through, pulling you in and wrapping you up in nuances often absent from others of this ilk. There is power and urgency here, both in the washes of sound and in Lauren Mayberry’s vocals. Since its release, The Bones of What You Believe has gone from a record I would throw on for a lark to an album I seek out and dive headlong into. That’s why–even in the face of stiff competition from veteran favorites–it’s my record of the year.