10 Best Albums of 2013
It either makes complete and total or absolutely zero sense to compile a Best Albums of 2013 list. These days, few people bother to even download music, let alone buy physical product, and the 10 records we've selected can all be streamed in full, free of charge, via services like Spotify and YouTube. Whether that means music fans are paying more attention to albums as unified works of art or continuing to listen in iTunes-era piecemeal fashion is anyone's guess. Not that we really care. As unabashed lovers of long-players, we're eager to revisit and rank the albums we came back to again and again over the last 12 months, even as new product rained down from omnipresent Soundclouds and streamed in from all sides, flooding our ears with way, way too much of a good thing.
We'll never get back Em of old -- that ticked-off outsider tickled by his ability to piss off parents and politicians with the sheer power of his words -- but this disc is close enough. As with the original 'Marshall Mathers LP,' there's a winning balance of heavy stuff -- check out the 'Stan' sequel 'Bad Guy' -- and clowning, and when Eminem gets down on something like 'Rap God,' he proves that all the fame, drugs and personal struggles haven't thrown him off his game.
It's easy to get lost in the back-story -- sexy Hollywood bad girl finally drops debut after years of squabbling with her label -- but this set of drama-queen synth-pop stands on its own. The disturbing cover shot is by far the most revealing or salacious thing about the album, and folks expecting songs about Sky's recent drug bust or Kurt-and-Courtney relationship with DIIV singer Zachary Cole Smith will be disappointed. It's not that she's withholding; she simply doesn't need tabloid gimmicks to sell pop of this caliber, and she's savvy enough to write confused teenage love songs anyone can relate to.
Of all the dance-punk dandies that found fame in the early '00s, Franz Ferdinand were easily the smartest and most full of life. On their first album in four years, the swishy Glaswegians keep the good times rolling, branching off in some new directions -- bubblegum psychedelia on 'Fresh Strawberries,' strutting fuzz-rock on 'Love Illumination' -- but basically doing what they've always done. When frontman Alex Kapranos professes to hate pop music on the closing 'Goodbye Lovers and Friends,' he's obviously joshing. Just listen to the slinky art-rock groovers 'Right Action' and 'Stand On the Horizon' and try to keep from shaking your ass.
Synth-pop and soul nuzzle like lovers on Ware's debut, an elegant album of big feelings and understated performances. Rather than go off on diva tangents, as she undoubtedly could, this 20-something Brit keeps Sade cool over spare backing tracks emblematic of her impeccable taste. She's worked with the likes of Disclosure and SBTRKT, and on standouts like 'No to Love' and 'Sweet Talk,' she brings a welcome underground dance sensibility to mainstream R&B.
It's overly long, wildly ambitious and a touch inconsistent, and for these reasons, the fourth album from Arcade Fire -- the follow-up to their Grammy-winning 'Suburbs' -- isn't much different than the three that came before. Only this time, the world's brainiest stadium rockers dare to get funky, nicking disco, dub, synth-pop and even Haitian grooves. Co-producer James Murphy likely eased the transition into clubland, but from its pre-release marketing to the zany TV special and masquerade-ball live shows it's inspired, 'Reflektor' is pure AF, for better and for worse.
Nineties nostalgia ain't just for rock fans. On their Mercury-nominated debut, this pair of English teen brothers digs into some deep house, pairing four-to-the-floor thump with hooks galore. Listeners old enough to remember Snap!'s 'Rhythm Is a Dancer' and Londonbeat's 'I've Been Thinking About You' will hear in 'Latch,' 'White Noise' and the irresistible, incendiary 'When a Fire Stars to Burn' sweet echoes of the past, even as these preternaturally clever bros subtly push the pulse in new directions.
Latin freestyle may have been the final frontier of forgotten '80s music, at least as far as indie rock excavation is concerned, so props to this L.A. duo for unearthing the bittersweet synth-pop sounds of Lisa Lisa and Debbie Deb. As if that weren't enough, Kisses principals Zinzi Edmundson and Jesse Kivel stay '80s with their lyrics, weaving together a song cycle based on Bret Easton Ellis' 'Less Than Zero.' If that all sounds a little calculated and conceptual, the record is anything but stiff. It's a nine-song vacay in vapid '80s L.A. -- a surprisingly nice place to visit.
Following a pair of 'Bleach'-y underground albums, Wavves broke out in 2010 with 'King of the Beach,' a kind of SoCal surf-grunge version of 'Nevermind.' That makes 'Afraid of Heights' their 'In Utero,' and here, main man Nathan Williams goes full-on Kurt, singing about putting guns to his head and fearing he'll go through what's left of his life unloved and misunderstood. There's even one called 'Everything Is My Fault,' Williams' very own 'All Apologies.' None of this bodes well for the future, but the music is peppy and self-referential -- more bored-stoner lament than desperate cry for help. Or so we hope.
To know Savages is to fear them, and to fear them is to love them. Picking up roughly -- and we do mean roughly -- where Siouxsie and the Slits left off, these seething female post-punkers rage against misogyny, hypocrisy and other such things, holding the world accountable for its mountains of BS. Someone's got to.
On her 2006 masterpiece 'Fox Confessor Brings the Flood,' Neko Case found her sound, and on this, her second album since, she doesn't much shake things up. So why is this latest batch of country-noir stunners the best album of 2013? More so than usual, Case is singing from personal experience, and that makes songs like 'Calling Cards' and the utterly wrenching 'Nearly Midnight, Honolulu' all the more affecting. Neko being Neko, she keeps plenty locked inside, but by opening up even a little, she offers hints at how someone so lovely, talented and hilarious on Twitter can write such dark and devastating music.