If you could sum up the signature sound of 2013, the one sonic tick that was employed more than any other — like autotune, nü-metal turntables, the G-funk high note, and flannel — it would have to be the marching-band drumbeat loved by Mumford and Sons, Phillip Phillips, the Lumineers, R.E.V.O, fun., and countless others. It is the sound of a generation of Disney-channel conformists lost in a bliss of Up-with-People hope, one in which no one is ever allowed to say a single negative word about anyone — or they must be doused in paint and forced to listen to EDM for all eternity. Fortunately, you won't find much of that marching band BS in this year's annual album list, and for that you better be grateful. Enjoy.
In a just world, the Demigodz' "Raiders Cap" would have been the hip-hop track of the summer, but sadly, the rap world is in the sorriest state it's ever been in — and that's taking into account the horrible era when the Fat Boys collaborated with the Beach Boys and Chubby Checker. And the guys in Connecticut-based Demigodz know it, which is probably why they penned "Raiders Cap," an addictive ode to the glory days of gangsta rap. It's also one of the few radio friendly songs on Killmatic, a collection of brutal tracks, sacrilicious rhymes, and anti-PC disses. The Demigodz spare no one. Consider this particular nasty passage from "Cave Man": "I'm the blue-eyed, pitchfork-swingin' leprosy infecting Nubian sisters. Please stay away. Better watch out. I'm the Caucasoid germ your daddy warned you about. Cave boy, cowboy, pistol in both holsters. I don't just rape women. I rape whole countries. I rape cultures. It's hard for me to be alive and stay righteous. I'm the guy that fucked the monkey and started the AIDS virus. I'm the Walt Disney creator of Uncle Remus. I'm the blue-eyed painting of the white Jesus." If that doesn't curdle your milk, then give Killmatic a spin.
Kanye West, Yeezus
Kanye West is more metal than anybody in metal. He's more avant garde than anybody in the world of avant garde. He's more fashion forward than New York Fashion Week on a bullet train to Fierce City. Over the course of Yeezus' 10 tracks, West shows a complete disdain for convention, common decency, humility, and good taste. He goes for baroque, with a collection of disjointed blips and blops and gold-toilet disses. Take "On Sight," for example. A minute or so into the track, West stops the song for no reason other than that he can. It's a musical middle finger. A fuck you to anybody who denies his greatness — and anyone who believes it. If there's one thing that Yeezus makes clear, it's that West hates everyone — whites, blacks, Kim Kardashian — and no one more than his listeners. "Black Skinhead" is a lost industrial rock classic, while "I Am God Featuring God" is one of the weirdest and most menacing tracks ever put on record. And then there's West's complete bastardization of Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit" with "Blood on the Leaves," turning the lynching ballad into, gasp, a tell-off ode to an ex. Clearly, Kanye is a man that doesn't give a fuck about anything. And while the album peters out at the end — climaxing in the musically offensive "Bound 2" — Yeezus is a strange and bold work by a man who is clearly in the early stages of schizophrenia.
French Camp, Odd Particle
One-time Charleston residents Owen Beverly and Benji Lee and their mates in Brooklyn-based French Camp released one of the best surprises of the year, Odd Particle. Recorded at Charleston's Hello Telescope studios, Odd Particle starts with the haunting pop of "Way to Your Heart" before moving on to the even more haunting pop of "Midway," a dreamy, drifting number that recalls the weary spirit of Radiohead's "Karma Police." While there are moments of more straight-up pop — "Cover Girl" and "Standing Room Only," two Odd Particle tracks that oddly fall short — and one rocker — the very cool "Day of the Dead" — the album is a tender collection of moody melancholia, punctuated by the LP's final track, "Albatross," in which Beverly takes the World War II propaganda poster phrase — "loose lips sink ships" — and turns it into an angelic coo.
Queens of the Stone Age, ...Like Clockwork
Who would have guessed that Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme was a closet balladeer, but judging by this year's ...Like Clockwork, the falsetto-loving ax man is just at home penning old-school Elton John-style piano ballads — like "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" and "I've Seen That Movie Too" — as he is at crafting primo stoner rock. Case in point, Clockwork's "The Vampyre of Time and Memory," a beautifully composed ode to sorrow that is a slow walk through the freezing rain into an ill-fated back alley mugging. Things are equally as bleak on the title track, "Kalopsia," and "I Appear Missing." Prior to the recording of Clockwork, Homme was bedridden for months following a life-threatening illness, but not even the heavy hand of fate can hold the 6-foot-4-inch Homme down for long. "Smooth Sailing" is without a doubt the grooviest song that the Queens have ever played, while "I Sat By the Ocean" is a dandy little robot rock number that could've been on the band's stellar sophomore LP, Rated R. While we hope Homme stays healthy, dammit if we don't like it when he's a wee bit down in the dumps.
Orgone, Fuzzed Up
Orgone's Fuzzed Up may have technically come out in 2012, but it was late, late 2012, like December, so it gets a pass. It's a 2013 disc as far as we're concerned. While it's difficult to write about a largely instrumental disc without getting all dancing-about-architecture, Fuzzed Up is one badass LP. Imagine if the Black Keys merged with Booker T and the MGs and they recorded a blaxploitation soundtrack for an acid-house remake of Star Wars, starring two robots that look like Ponch and John from C.H.I.P.s, and this is what you'd get. The best part: this baby is free. Download it now.
Lee Fields, Faithful Man
On Lee Fields' latest LP, Faithful Man, the fiery soul singer once again proves that the flames of old school soul are still raging. From the powerful title track about the undeniable temptations of infidelity to the upbeat "I Still Got it," the Sam Cooke-Otis Redding lonely groove of "Moonlight Mile," the fuzz-buzz driven ballad "Walk on Thru That Door," Faithful Man is one of the most refreshing releases of 2013 despite its very obvious retro leanings. The artists inhabiting today's R&B world — a cold and soulless land where ProTools, autotune, and grade-school innuendos reign supreme — could learn a thing from the elder Fields. Real music and real passion will always triumph over the machine.
Serj Tankian, Jazz-Iz Christ
The metal world is a worse place because System of a Down is no longer a part of it — much like Faith No More, Kyuss, and Rage Against the Machine. Without champions of the weird, genre-bending, and who-gives-a-fuckery, hard rock grows stale easily. But while System of a Down is effectively no more, it's good to know at least one of its members is still letting his freak flags fly. With Jazz-Iz Christ, Serj Tankian has finally ditched his System of a Down days for an odd-duck collection of straight up jazz, WTF time changes, electronica, and more flute playing than a Renaissance fair —there's not a metal riff to be found here. At turns sexy, balls-to-the-walls nutso, and classic, Jazz-Iz Christ is a rock-solid piece of workplace earbud rock.
Charles Bradley, Victim of Love
Charles Bradley's 2011 debut, No Time for Dreaming, was a revelation. Here was a major talent that had been overlooked for too long. While 60-plus-year-old Bradley's 2013 disc, Victim of Love, isn't the revelation that his debut was, the singer's sophomore collection is a blast of retro soul, harkening back to the Temptations' psychedelic years ("Confusion"), good ole Drifter's-style beach music ("You Put the Flame on It"), and black power soul ("Hurricane"). Few performers today sing with Bradley's passion about the passions that rule the human heart. When Bradley sings, you feel his pain, his fury, and his unwavering love for his fellow man.
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Love Has Come for You
By now, we should have gotten over our collective surprise that Steve Martin has found a new career as a banjo-playing bluegrasser. But what's truly amazing about his most recent effort is that he somehow made Edie Brickell relevant again. On Love Has Come for You, the one-time New Bohemian Brickell proves she was more than a passing college-rock fancy, penning a collection of heartfelt ("Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby"), funny ("Siamese Cat"), and haunting ("Yes She Did") songs, all of which are sung in her signature soft-spoken way. Even more shocking than Brickell's reemergence is the fact that her voice sounds as delicately pretty as ever. And unlike most bluegrass artists today, she also writes about — gasp — contemporary matters on a few of the album's tracks.
The Relatives, The Electric Word
Halfway through 2013, I declared that the Relatives' The Electric Word would be my favorite album of the year. And as 2013 comes to a close, nothing has changed. The Electric Word is with a doubt the grooviest, grungiest blast of psychedelic gospel the world has ever known. The lead-off track "Things are Changing" starts off as a clean-cut old-school gospel number before turning into a psych-soul powerhouse, while "Let Your Light Shine" is a hard-charging, Hammond organ- and horn-driven rave up that recalls the Temptation's "Ball of Confusion." And then there's the world-weary soul of "What's Wrong with America" and "Bad Trip," a go-go dancer on acid groover that's as badass and trippy as you would expect. Make no mistake the Relatives kick ass for the Lord.
St. Lucia, When the Night
The name makes us think of island music, but St. Lucia's latest is more electro-pop, '80s revival than steel drums. South-African-born, Brooklyn-based singer Jean-Philip Grobler combines synth-driven sounds with dreamy electronic beats — he even manages some awesome sax solos (in particular "This Is the Way You Remember Me") almost reminiscent of Toto's "Africa." Poetic lyrics and a soothing voice bring this '80s throwback into the '10s (is that a thing, now?).
Haim, Days Are Gone
Every year the BBC has a poll to determine who are the artists to watch in the upcoming year. Previous winners include Adele, Ellie Goulding, Keane, Mika, and Jessie J, and for 2013 Haim took home the honor. The L.A.-based sister trio released their first full-length album in September, which starts with the simple sound of a drum echoing on the track "Wire." The following tracks live up to the pressure of being the one to watch. The poptastic beats and the enchanting hooks transform a guilty pleasure album to just be a pleasure album ...without the '70s sex-den connotation.
Blood Orange, Cupid Deluxe
After learning of Devonté Hynes background, his mix-up of music makes more sense. He's an R&B artist that converges dream-pop and synth sounds with hip-hop beats. The Brooklyn transport — via Texas and Britain — doesn't just sound like an East Coast rapper. Instead he manages to encompass sounds from different times and geographic locales. There's the Prince-sounding "Uncle Ace" to "On the Line," which is evocative of D'Angelo's "Untitled (How Does It Feel)." Lyrically, Blood Orange has been influenced by the times, and his thoughts have the brevity of a tweet, but with the finesse of a poet. The overall message is one of pure emotion — beautiful and sad.
Lorde, Pure Heroine
Lorde is a player of words, which is even illustrated in her debut album's name. Not only is she a female hero, her tunes are addictive. If you haven't heard "Royals," then you must be dead. But don't question her musical talent based solely on the heavy Top 40 rotation her hit single received. Electronic and hip-hop beats break away for her voice to question the importance of materialistic things society has deemed important on the album. "Team," her follow-up to "Royals," again questions the excess of today's world with an us-against-the-world message, and "Still Sane" explores how she doesn't want to fall into the trap of fame but knows the risk is there. For a 16-year-old, Lorde is wiser than her peers. And the fact that she manages to still create kickass music makes us want to hate her just a little, but we can't.
Jason Isbell, Southeastern
The day we received Southeastern in the mail, my wife and I sat down on the couch and listened to the whole thing twice. We'd come to expect wrenching songwriting from Jason Isbell, the former Drive-By Truckers guitarist who penned such Southern-rock classics as "Outfit" and "Decoration Day," but nothing prepared us for this collection of elegant character studies and ruthlessly sad story-songs. My wife, a nurse on a hospital cancer unit, was particularly struck by "Elephant," a song about a woman dying of cancer that skips the maudlin crap and cuts straight to the pain: "When she was drunk, she made cancer jokes/ She made up her own doctor's notes/ Surrounded by her family, I saw that she was dying alone."
Dustin Kensrue, The Water & The Blood
Christians believe a few beautiful truths, but they're rarely articulated in contemporary hymns, which tend toward sentimentality at the expense of theological depth. So color me pleasantly surprised at this hard-driving collection of church anthems by Dustin Kensrue, the longtime frontman of the emo melodic hardcore band Thrice who now leads worship at Mars Hill Church in Bellevue, Wash. The song "My One Comfort" opens with a line cribbed from the Heidelberg Catechism, a 450-year-old Protestant confession: "My one comfort both in life and death is that I am not my own." Musically, this sounds like a latter-day Thrice album, sans screaming, with toned-down drums, plus a few fist-pumping stadium moments. "The Voice of the Lord" is cataclysmic and dissonant, and "It's Not Enough" is rawer than anything you're likely to hear on Christian radio.
Rudresh Mahanthappa, Gamak
I'm not a jazz cat. I don't know a lot about the history or nuances of the genre, but I sure do enjoy hearing it. And while alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa's music crosses from jazz into musical territory I know even less about — Indian scales and funk-laced progressive solos — there's something universally appealing about Gamak that has had me hooked from the time I heard a few snippets on NPR in January. Mahanthappa's Coltrane-worthy sax blasts are obviously the focus, but on subsequent listens, I've been charmed by guitarist David Fiuczynski's fretless guitar odysseys and drummer Dan Weiss' intricate cymbal work. I listen to this album while I write, and it keeps me on my toes.
Company, Bird Skulls
I'd recommend this 20-minute EP from local band Company (a.k.a. Co., a.k.a. songwriter Brian Hannon and an ever-changing crew of musical accomplices) based on the strength of just one song: "Curse." Mechanical River mastermind Joel Hamilton guest-produced the track, dunking Hannon's doleful vocals in reverb over a backdrop of sampled drums and nylon-string guitar strums to create a sound redolent of Hamilton's 2012 experimental masterpiece Astral Castle. Lyrically, it's a haunting meditation: "And the full moon is rising/ The wolf, it is howling/ The villain is silent/ Your memory's hiding/ Remnants of what was/ All is lost." All hope is not lost, though, and the final track "Mt. Pisgah" sounds a note of grieving closure and even a hint of triumph, with an all-out indie-rock guitar chorus finally making it into the mix.
The Milk Carton Kids, The Ash & Clay
The Milk Carton Kids are two young men from California playing old acoustic guitars. Think sunny Simon-and-Garfunkel vocal harmonies over dark Gillian Welch-and-Dave Rawlings country guitar playing, and you're on the right track. On their Grammy-nominated album The Ash & Clay, whiplash songs like "Honey, Honey" could hold their own against the best of Dave Rawlings Machine, while slow tracks like "Years Gone By" and album closer "Memphis" sound like elegies written by much older songwriters. The band is right at home on Prairie Home Companion, where they've made a few appearances, but they were equally in their element when they took the Music Farm stage this June opening for Idaho folk man Josh Ritter. This album is all about clear-headed lyrics and smart guitar playing, and I'll be coming back to it for years to come.
Year-end best lists perpetually befuddle me. It's surpassingly difficult to score the year's best albums because they're all special in their own way. So rather than rank or rate the cream of the crop, here's a celebration of the year's best evocations of a particular season.
Spring: Okkervil River, The Silver Gymnasium
Inspired by frontman Will Sheff's smalltown New Hampshire childhood, The Silver Gymnasium suggests Norman Rockwell with Blue Velvet beating within. Similarly the music has a showy '70s rock vibe that evokes David Bowie ("Lido Pier Suicide Car") and Warren Zevon ("On a Balcony") while the melodic warmth and energy soften the lyrics' curdled hope, imbuing Sheff's recollections with the wistful glow of the last pleasant moments before things go completely to hell.
Summer: Kurt Vile, Wakin On A Pretty Daze
Vile channels the freedom of summer vacation, moon-eyed from bong hits at dawn, morning dew kissing his kicks as he basks in the day's first light. Known more as a garage-rocker, Daze is the culmination of his recent move toward acid-folk and psychedelica. Though the music blooms outward like a pot cloud, the keenly craft guitar and melodies stave off typical stoner and jam-band torpor.
Fall: Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle
Marling's shrinking violet act gets a burst of adrenaline on this smoky, surprisingly supple 60-plus-minute set. The Laurel Canyon confessionals and ornate folk remain, but they're balanced by muscular Zeppelin-esque folk-blues like "Master Hunter." Once I Was an Eagle is a collection of polished adult pop shadowed by the ghostly pall of regret.
Winter: Patty Griffin, American Kid
Arguably Americana's finest female songwriter, Griffin's penned an ode to her country imbued with the dying blue-collar spirit of her recently passed father. It's not bitter so much as sadly disappointed, with Griffin addressing the banal post-party alienation ("That Kind of Lonely") and a soldier with PTSD ("Not a Bad Man"), among other topics. This American portrait shows our age lines in stark relief.
Best Coast, Fade Away EP
Bethany Cosentino's voice is less lo-fi than on previous albums, but this surf-pop duo is still tackling insecurity, relationships, and just being bored. For such overdone subjects, Fade Away still delivers the best upbeat summertime cruising soundtrack.
Sleigh Bells, Bitter Rivals
Sleigh Bells make the perfect theme music for when you slow motion walk to your boss, give him your two weeks, and then flip his desk over and do donuts in the parking lot. Only Alexis Krauss' sultry voice can make distorted guitars sound this good.
As a former pop-punker, I've always had a place in my heart for Paramore. The band's new album shows dramatic growth since ditching everyone but Hayley Williams, but it will still make you belt songs out to your steering wheel. It's a very effective FU to their recent critics.
Katy Perry, PRISM
Katy Perry just knows how to make a song that I want to sing along to. The first half of PRISM is full of happy-go-lucky tunes with some '80s vibes and sexual innuendos and then sobers up for some power ballads. The candy queen continues to show she still has it.
This electronic album sounds like it came from a dingy European discotheque rather than the Minnesota cold. With its smooth sound and dreamy vocals, it'll be an upgrade from your usual wah-wah-wah frat boy EDM.
Mikal Cronin, MCII
MCII succeeds by contradiction. It decks fluttering jangle pop with concussive fuzz and pairs angry fiddle with searing guitar. It's an album of brazen conviction and humbling uncertainty. And more than any album in recent memory, it captures what it is to be a confused kid falling in love with this novel thing called rock 'n' roll.
Chris Forsyth, Solar Motel
Solar Motel emerges from rock 'n' roll's deep end. Forsyth and his band offer four tracks totaling 41 minutes, and every second is either building toward or reveling in a delirious, psych-scorched racket. But the brilliance comes in the way Forsyth's guitar leads them through the chaos: His spiraling surge keeps their superheated mass from imploding.
Arnold Dreyblatt & Megafaun, Appalachian Excitation
Dreyblatt's compositions utilize his self-constructed bass and unique tuning system to create sounds that truly fill rooms; his overtones can become so rock-solid that air feels like a vacuum when they're gone. The avant-folk trio Megafaun make his demanding sound accessible, percolating with an anxious twang. For the right kind of music nerd, it's something close to a miracle.
Hiss Golden Messenger, Haw
Haw is filled with probing compositions that yearn for spiritual peace and wrestle with religion's prickly issues. You might even call it, paraphrasing M.C. Taylor, a.k.a. Hiss Golden Messenger, a little gospel album for people who are trying to believe. Incendiary guitar solos, delicate banjos, and uneasy strings follow Taylor on his enthralling quest.
Centrallia is pastoral music for the space age. Relaxing drones emerge and evolve; whirring electronics melt into warming cello. Elegant finger-picking shares space with chilling static. This is music that's obsessed with the possibility of sound as well as its functionality — an expanse to get lost in, but also one to excitedly explore, uncovering new wonders with every spin.
Brokeback, Brokeback and the Black Rock
Brokeback, the slow-burn post-rock side project of Tortoise's Douglas McCombs, is all wide-horizon bravado, endless highways and ghost towns, warm desert winds and rodeo verve. Its guitar tones are warm and polished; its drums are irregular but very fine. Its melodies are languid, unhurried; its songs form incredibly delicate and intricate architectures, like ancient rock formations worn down by eons of wind and weather. Black Rock evokes the West, but with less cowboy swagger and more tumbleweed torpor.
Tim Hecker, Virgins
Tim Hecker, like some of his electronic music contemporaries, went organic in 2013: On Virgins, he employed chamber instruments, flutes, woodwinds, piano, and the virginal, a sort of early harpsichord. But while Daft Punk went disco and EDM continued its all-payload assault, Hecker used his ever-evolving textural and sonic palette to further explore his signature sinister, breathing drone. Like his last opus, 2011's Ravedeath, 1972, Virgins' dark-cloud ambience is beautiful but marked with looming darkness, lovely but woozily malevolent, soothing yet utterly unsettling.
The Necks, Open
Here's a quick list of things Open, the one-cut longplayer from Australian experimental jazz trio The Necks, does in its 68 minutes. It yawns. It hums. It buzzes. It sings. It floats. It stops. It dawdles. It thinks. It ponders. It chimes. It slips. It slides. It pirouettes. It coruscates. It swoons. It gleams. It glitters. It meditates. It mesmerizes. It breathes. It smolders. It ebbs. It flows. It grows. It matures. It lives.
Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels was supposed to be a low-stakes one-off, a take-it-sleazy just-for-fun victory lap for Killer Mike and El-P following a banner year for both — the monstrous one-two of Mike's R.A.P. Music and El's Cancer for Cure. But Run the Jewels turned out better than both. It's a hardheaded banger that bumps like a bastard, with El and Mike engaging in an escalating arms race of over-the-top threats without coming across as shock-rap man-children. Run the Jewels is knuckles-first boom-bap. It's high-wire delirium, snapping ligaments and throwing errant elbows. While Drake and Kanye spent the year screaming for attention, Killer Mike and El-P were snatching chains and picking fights. Come at 'em, bro.
William Tyler, Impossible Truth
With the rise of rap and the precipitous downslide of rock 'n' roll into dumbed-down, less-is-more schlock, the guitar's had a bit of a rough millennium. But pushed to the fringes, the guitar has thrived. This year was a great one for avant-garde guitar records — see: Steve Gunn's Time Off, Glenn Jones' My Garden State, Chris Forsyth's Solar Motel, and Daniel Bachman's Jesus, I'm a Sinner — few did the guitar-as-orchestra thing as well as Nashville's William Tyler. Impossible Truth finds Tyler working with a broad palette of textures and colors, his transcendent playing flitting from Americana to raga to drone to baroque classical styles, often within the course of the same song.