Top Albums of 2013: # 3, 2, 1

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3. Sam Phillips, PUSH ANY BUTTON

In the five years between this and her last proper album, Don’t Do Anything, Phillips instituted a project, The Long Play, which was a series of digital EPs, singles and one LP only available via a subscription. It was a unique forum for her to hash out ideas and experiments, but it came off as a continual work-in-progress. This set of songs, written directly after it, seems more fully formed, perhaps because it appears that Phillips has unabashedly fallen in love with pop music again. I love everything she’s done since she reinvented herself on 2001’s better-with-every-year Fan Dance, but this record also reminds me why I fell in love with her in the first place. Think of it as an older-and-wiser Martinis and Bikinis and marvel at how lithe and youthful she still sounds on gems like “You Know I Won’t” or “When I’m Alone”.

Best tracks: “Can’t See Straight”, “No Time Like Now”, “Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You”, “When I’m Alone”, “You Know I Won’t”

Video for “You Know I Won’t”:

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2. Tegan and Sara, HEARTTHROB

The mere idea that this alt-rock duo would go pop over a decade into their career likely irritated many of their fans—did the Quin sisters really need to make their own Liz Phair? The first thing you notice here is the big, bold, undeniably produced sound, full of synths and other sonics that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Katy Perry record (although knob-twiddler Greg Kurstin of The Bird and The Bee has better taste). Then, you detect the undeniable strength of these songs—catchy but not too obvious, smart but not self-indulgent—and you realize just how much T&G have upped the ante. They’re writing lyrics and melodies of a caliber they weren’t capable of ten years ago and the music’s Technicolor scope perfectly complements their newfound ambition. In other words, Heartthrob consists of ten good-to-great potential singles—what more could one ask of an album?

Best tracks: “Closer”, “Drove Me Wild”, “I Was A Fool”, “I’m Not Your Hero”, “Now I’m All Messed Up”

Video for “I Was A Fool”:

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1. Daft Punk, RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES

Six weeks after this album’s release, I likened it to one of my all-time favorite records, The Avalanches’ Since I Left You; nearly six months later, although separated by time (13 years) and aesthetics (The Avalanches construct their songs entirely by sampling existing songs, Random Access Memories contains but one sample amongst its 13 tracks), the two records seem like mirror images of each other, both celebrating and interpreting the past but also integrating it within the present. RAM is a music obsessive’s playground, as if the narrator of LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” finally got his shit together and simply made his masterpiece.

Beyond the deservedly inescapable, retro-disco hit “Get Lucky”, RAM has room for new wave (“Instant Crush”, my favorite single song of the year), piano balladry (“Within”), Steely Dan-like pop (“Fragments of Time”), the autobiographical musings of a techno pioneer (the epic “Giorgio By Moroder”, which sums up all of RAM’s ambitions and intentions in nine minutes) and ‘70s singer/songwriter Paul Williams (the ridiculous, sublime, emotional centerpiece “Touch”). As for the electronically processed robot vocals (the only thing Daft Punk has retained from their earlier records), they’ve never seemed more expressive or effective. Everything old is new again on RAM, where an inspired convergence of the past and the present spark some show of hope for the future.

Best tracks: “Fragments of Time”, “Get Lucky”, “Giorgio By Moroder”, “Give Life Back To Music”, “Instant Crush”, “Touch”

Video for “Instant Crush”:

Top Albums of 2013: # 6, 5, 4

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6. Goldfrapp, TALES OF US

Since Alison and Will never make the same album twice, I had no idea what to expect from their sixth; the track listing, consisting entirely of one-word titles, all but one of them proper names, only heightened my curiosity. Slow, moody and darkly cinematic, Tales of Us is a challenging listen, ebbing and flowing along an endless shoreline, occasionally rustling like a windswept meadow but mostly still and glass-eyed. Emphasizing orchestral/acoustic settings with the subtlest of electronics, it’s another departure for sure, but one that comfortably suits Alison’s textural, affected vocals. There’s no “Ooh La La” or even an “A&E” here, but I find myself returning to it again and again, and extracting more from it each time.

Best tracks: “Clay”, “Drew”, “Simone”, “Ulla”

Video for “Drew”:

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5. Laura Marling, ONCE I WAS AN EAGLE

This is the 23-year-old folk wunderkind’s third straight album in a row to make my year-end top ten, but its position here wasn’t always secure; compared to her previous efforts, this is a rather challenging (yes, that word again) listen, not only because of breadth (16 songs, 63 minutes) but also an inkling of Marling fearlessly leaping into the unknown. The first four tracks, all built around a singular droning chord progression, make up a suite, melodic traces of which recur throughout the album’s remainder. A few songs, like the lusty, rhythmic “Master Hunter” notably stand out from the overall din, but, as with Tales of Us, it’s a sustained sense of exploration and wonder that resonates over time. Her generation’s Joni Mitchell? Keep watching this space.

Best tracks: “I Was An Eagle”, “Master Hunter”, “When Were You Happy? (And How Long Has That Been)”, “Where Can I Go?”

Video for “Master Hunter”:

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4. Vampire Weekend, MODERN VAMPIRES OF THE CITY

They’ve grown up a lot since Contra—their third album is the first without any annoying songs I have to skip over, but its merits go far beyond that. Having perfected an extraordinarily individual aesthetic up until now, they’re free to develop and deepen the content. In this case, that means not just observing and commenting on the world, but playing an active part by experiencing and confronting universal foibles such as aging, heartbreak, disappointment, and doubt. Up-tempo numbers like “Diane Young” and “Unbelievers” mix deceptively sunny verve with sobering content, while the choruses of “Step” and “Hannah Hunt” (wistful and yearning, respectively) bespeak levels of maturity and feeling I previously thought were beyond this band.

Best tracks: “Diane Young”, “Hannah Hunt”, “Step”, “Unbelievers”

Video for “Hannah Hunt”:

Top Albums of 2013: # 9, 8, 7

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9. Pet Shop Boys, ELECTRIC

Oh, those Pet Shop Boys: a mere year after their worst album (Elysium) comes one of their best—possibly their best since Very (granted, I’ve made this claim before). The flipside to Elysium’s reflective, milquetoast calm, Electric is an all-out banger, their most (non-remix album) dance-oriented effort since Introspective. For two men on the cusp of 60, Neil and Chris sound as alive and inspired as they ever have: “Love Is A Bourgeois Construct” melds quasi-classical interpolations with that ever-dry PSB wit, while “Thursday” is so strong a single you begin to think that maybe, just maybe it could reestablish them in America as the pop stars they briefly were for a heady spell in the 1980s.

Best tracks: “Fluorescent”, “Love Is A Bourgeois Construct”, “Thursday”

Video for “Thursday”:

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8. Haim, DAYS ARE GONE

When first hearing their ‘80s-friendly pop on satellite radio a year ago, I thought the name was in tribute to that era’s teen idol Corey; turns out that it’s the surname of the band members who are also sisters, which should be no surprise given their close harmonies and their sense of musical interconnectedness. The year’s most accomplished debut, it plays like a collection of singles, from instant-gratification opener “Falling” to the swaggering, glam-tastic “The Wire” to “If I Could Change Your Mind” and “Don’t Save Me”, both as pert and tart as prime Christine McVie. The lyrics aren’t anything to write home about, but you’ll be humming along (or singing out loudly) too much to really care.

Best tracks: “Don’t Save Me”, “If I Could Change Your Mind”, “The Wire”

Video for “Don’t Save Me”:

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7. Alison Moyet, THE MINUTES

Moyet’s best album since Hometime, and that’s all you really need to know, except that it’s also her most heavily electronic effort since Yaz’s You and Me Both from thirty years ago. However, nothing here feels like a throwback except for the very Yaz-like “Filigree” and it’s a good enough song that the considerably peppier “West Coast” mix version at the end is an album highlight. As ever, Moyet can still sing rings around divas half her age; in 2013, it’s nothing less than a thrill to hear that voice enliven and command such tricky settings as the push-and-pull clang of “Changeling” or the exuberant electropop of “Love Reign Supreme”.

Best tracks: “Filigree (West Coast Mix)”, “Love Reign Supreme”, “Right As Rain”

Video for “Filigree (West Coast Mix)”:

Top Albums of 2013: # 12, 11, 10

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12. Fitz and The Tantrums, MORE THAN JUST A DREAM

Pickin’ Up The Pieces was always going to be a hard act to follow; the funny thing about More Than Just A Dream is that the best cuts (all of ‘em front-loaded in the album’s first half) try something new—specifically, they incorporate explicit, post-1970s influences into the band’s trademark retro soul. Such a hybrid not only accentuates the Daryl Hall-isms already inherent in Michael Fitzpatrick’s voice but also suggests they wanna be something more unique than just the white-boy version of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings; I hope they’ll continue broadening their horizons on album # 3.

Best tracks: “6 AM”, “Break The Walls”, “The Walker”

Video for “The Walker”:

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11. Iron and Wine, GHOST ON GHOST

Sam Beam’s musical nom de plume began as minimalist folk but he added more instruments and embellishments until taking it too far with the overcooked Kiss Each Other Clean. Thankfully, he’s recanted here, not stripping down by any means but delicately refining his sonic palette. Though still relatively slick, there’s crispness in its density and a beguiling sense of adventure that’s expansive but never bites off more than it can chew. Plus, as a singer Beam has rarely sounded better, even recalling a distaff Tracey Thorn (of all people) on yearning mid-tempo shuffle “The Desert Babbler”.

Best tracks: “The Desert Babbler”, “Lover’s Revolution”, “Singers and the Endless Song”

Video for “The Desert Babbler”:

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10. Janelle Monae, THE ELECTRIC LADY

The thing with an artist as precocious and far-seeing as Monae is that, like Nellie McKay or Ani DiFranco, she’s always going to do what she wants and when she’s on, her impact nearly makes up for the times she’s off. So, delete the time-wasting skits, maybe even put the remaining tracks on shuffle and let yourself be repeatedly dazzled by her verve and occasional ingenuity. She plays well with others (especially Prince and Miguel), but whether she’s “giving face” in the best RuPaul sense (“Q.U.E.E.N.”), crafting her own “Hey Ya!” (“Dance Apocalyptic”) or sailing off into psychedelic sensuality (“Sally Ride”), it’s All About Her (and lucky for us, she’s mostly fabulous).

Best tracks: “Dance Apocalyptic”, “Sally Ride”, “We Were Rock and Roll”

Video for “We Were Rock and Roll”:

Top Albums of 2013: # 15, 14, 13

Such a great year for music that I’m doing a top 15 instead of a top 10 (although I’m too busy to do a top 20)…

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15. Cut Copy, FREE YOUR MIND

While this Australian quartet’s fourth album doesn’t scale the same heights as their second (2008’s In Ghost Colours), it’s arguably more consistent. By maintaining a joyful, almost utopian spirit throughout, their many influences (disco, synth-pop, early ‘80s new pop, late ‘80s rave) all sound like they belong. As usual, the most immediate cuts are those with the hookiest choruses (just try to get the one from “In Memory Capsule” out of your head), but over time, more groove-based selections like “Let Me Show You Love” reveal themselves as potential earworms.

Best tracks: “In Memory Capsule”, “Let Me Show You Love”, “We Are Explorers”

Video for “In Memory Capsule”:

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14. Erin McKeown, MANIFESTRA

McKeown has such a distinct voice, one simultaneously classic and contemporary that she risks coming off as a singer who could too easily coast on lesser songwriting. Fortunately, the latter matches the former on her most overtly political album to date. As usual, musically she’s eclectic, switching with ease from a bluesy stomp (“The Politican”) to gorgeous balladry (“Proof”) and back to earthy swamp rock (“Baghdad to the Bayou”). Lyrically, as you’d expect from the album title, she melds the personal and the political without seeming too obvious or (and this is important) too obscure.

Best tracks: “The Jailer”, “The Politician”, “Proof”

Video for “Proof”:

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13. Parquet Courts, LIGHT UP GOLD

Exuding a loopy sarcasm mostly absent from indie rock since Pavement, these guys enhance their rudimentary post-punk work ethic with a slacker’s sense of humor that comes as a relief after years of melodramatic emo and mumblecore reticence. The opener’s hook, an exaggeratedly caustic “For-get about it!” sets the tone for an LP teeming with little roughed-up gems, most of ‘em under two minutes long, although the best clocks in at over five: “Stoned and Starving” is exactly about what the title says it is, and it climaxes in a Velvets-like mewl of feedback and resolve.

Best tracks: “Borrowed Time”, “N Dakota”, “Stoned and Starving”

Video for “Stoned and Starving”: