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The Best Albums of 2013

The Best Albums of 2013

Countdown: Our complete album guide At home, Nakhane Touré shattered the indie-pop stereotypes, Culoe De Song sculpted a global-house head trip, Make-Overs mined a treasure chest of garage-rock cool and Tzozo reminded listeners that kwaito’s not dead. Globally, it was more A.D.D. anarchy: Vampire Weekend cut the cute and raised the stakes, Kanye assaulted our

Countdown: Our complete album guide

At home, Nakhane Touré shattered the indie-pop stereotypes, Culoe De Song sculpted a global-house head trip, Make-Overs mined a treasure chest of garage-rock cool and Tzozo reminded listeners that kwaito’s not dead. Globally, it was more A.D.D. anarchy: Vampire Weekend cut the cute and raised the stakes, Kanye assaulted our ears, Bowie shocked the world and Lorde tossed a pissed-off teen pop-party grenade.

1. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

The first two Vampire Weekend albums showed off a sound unlike any other in rock: a precocious mix of indie pop, African guitar grooves and wry, boat-shoe-preppy lyrics that were sometimes too cute for their own good. But with Modern Vampires of the City, they went deeper, adding scope and ambition to all the sophistication. In 2013, no other record mixed emotional weight with studio-rat craft and sheer stuckin-your-head hummability like this one.

It’s one of rock’s great albums about staring down adulthood and trying not to blink – that moment where, as singer Ezra Koenig puts it, you realise “wisdom’s a gift/But you’d trade it for youth”. The music is sculpted and subtly bonkers, with orchestral sweeps balancing hymn-like beauty and dub-inflected grooves. Koenig earns those Paul Simon comparisons, thanks to vivid lyrics about youngish things in crisis – the unemployed friend who can’t find a reason to shave in “Obvious Bicycle”, the weary couple soldiering through the road-trip epic, “Hannah Hunt”. Then there’s Koenig himself, filling songs like “Worship You” with religious allusions, evoking the search for meaning and faith with wit and skepticism. The album’s fog-over-New York cover reminds us just how hard that search has become. The music makes it feel worth the heartache just the same.

2. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

Now that the pop world has caught up with what Daft Punk were doing 15 years ago, naturally the French electro pioneers decide to rip it up and start again. So they spend most of Random Access Memories doing lush Seventies-style studio funk fusion, not at all unreminiscent of Steely Dan or Average White Band. Is it a strange move at the height of the EDM era? Yes. (Any album that can fit in appearances by The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, German disco godfather Giorgio Moroder and Seventies shlock-pop king Paul Williams is working on its own terms.) Is it awesome? Mais oui. And for all the lovingly detailed live-band touches, Daft Punk prove they’re still pop fans at heart with “Get Lucky” – an instant disco classic where Pharrell and the great Nile Rodgers raise their cups to the star.

3. Queens of the Stone Age – Like Clockwork

Josh Homme came back after a life-threatening illness, called up some rock-star pals (Dave Grohl, Trent Reznor, Elton John) and revived his mordantly arch-metal outfit to kick out creepily torrid, darkly suave Camaro rock like only he can. Homme combines menacing riffs and glammy refinement, sounding like Bowie reborn as a winking dark lord of the underworld. “Fairweather Friends”, featuring Grohl and Sir Elton, is a grunge-grease bitchfest. On “I Sat by the Ocean”, Homme crushes riffs and mellows out with “a potion to erase you”. Yet, for all the awesomely negative vibing and genuine twistedness (see “If I Had a Tail”), Clockwork hit with an everydude heaviness that’s getting rarer and rarer these days. Plus, the king of Queens still has the best hard-rock falsetto of his generation.

4. Nakhane Touré – Brave Confusion

How’s a sensitive young 20-something singersongwriter yearning to make sense of his sexuality supposed to find faith beyond the fear, selfloathing and loneliness of lost love? In an age where global indie pop is overdosing on choreographed irony, this Eastern Cape-born acoustic guitar troubadour traffics in good old-fashioned feeling. Yearning to find fluidity in the ebbs and flows between id, ego and superego, Touré’s “blackness blues” appear as pop psychological sketches that swing between obsessive-compulsive love songs that narrate desire (“Robert”) and faith (“Abraham”), confessional coming-of-age dancefloor celebrations (“Christopher”) and beatific Afro-indie pop redemption songs (“Tabula Rasa”) with an innocence, intimacy and beauty that’s rare.

5. Paul McCartney – New

The sound of a 71-year-old Beatle getting back in the ring. McCartney plays to his strengths: Wings-like glam rock, Little Richard howls and, yep, some remarkably Beatlesque pop tunes and George Martin-ish arrangements (thanks partly to Martin’s son, Giles, who produced several tracks). “Early Days” challenges lingering misconceptions about McCartney’s role in The Beatles (“I don’t see how they can remember/When they weren’t where it was at”). Sir Paul also engages 21st-century pop with sharp ears, bringing in young-gun producers like Paul Epworth, Mark Ronson and Ethan Johns. He even rocks a quasi-rap flow and some giddy, Gaga-style stadium chants on “Queenie Eye”. As Macca understands better than almost anyone, rock’n’roll is fuelled by a hunger for good times and an ageless exuberance.

6. Kanye West – Yeezus

Kanye’s electro masterpiece is his most extreme album ever, which is saying something. No wonder the late, great Lou Reed embraced Yeezus, since it’s basically the Metal Machine Music concept translated into futuristic hip-hop, all industrial overload and hypertense egomania and hostile vibes. The music is part Eighties synthblitz dark wave, part Jamaican dancehall. But it’s all Kanye, taking you on a guided tour of the dark shit inside his brain. He rages about racial politics (“New Slaves”), he demands his damn croissants (“I Am a God”), he comes on like a robot sex machine (“I’m in It”). He kibitzes with the Lord, who agrees Kanye is the shit. And he ends with the Seventies-soul send-up “Bound 2”, maybe the most audacious song he’s ever written, not to mention the most beautiful.

7. Arcade Fire – Reflektor

Seventy minutes of wide-screen dance rock coproduced by LCD Soundsystem retiree James Murphy, the Grammy-grabbing, high-aiming, arena-filling, indie-earnest family band does what The Clash, Talking Heads and so many before it have done: reconnect rock to its dance-floor soul. There are flashes of glam, punk, disco, electro, dub reggae and Haitian rara. Being Arcade Fire, there’s also emo dramatics and cultural critiques (staring at screens: don’t do it!). Of course, the haters hated; the chin-scratchers debated the politics of the album’s Caribbean undercurrents. But that ability to provoke actual feelings is what makes this great. And no release this year had a more entertaining rollout brouhaha. Stephen Colbert called them pretentious to their faces; they laughed too. And then the party started.

8. Arctic Monkeys – AM

On its fifth album, this quintessentially British band moved to L.A., took inspiration from old Aaliyah hits and glam Bowie, and made a spiky, slinky beast of a record, perfect for that moment in the evening when you just realised that maybe that seventh drunk text you sent to your ex-girlfriend wasn’t such a hot idea. The album was reportedly inspired by Alex Turner’s breakup with model and TV host Alexa Chung, and songs like “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High” and the achingly slow “Do I Wanna Know” are full of slow-simmering heartache. The careening “chip-shop rock & roll” (as Turner called it) of previous records was replaced by a creeping desert-rock paranoia. And the frayed party’s-over lullaby “Mad Sounds” might’ve been the sweetest Velvet Underground echo of Lou Reed’s final year.

9. Culoe De Song – Exodus

Is there another EDM producer capable of mainlining traditional African choral blues incantations into an arrhythmic minimal tech-house call onto the dancefloor that’s both a deep-house head trip, an arena rocker, a sangoma seance and a soundtrack to South African democracy’s growing pains? Tailoring his grooves towards freeing the soul in each guest serenader’s hipshake, Culoe creates a truly global dance blueprint that moves seamlessly between meandering maskandi jazz instrumentals, deep-house African Renaissance praise-song delights and jazzy bass-funk celebrations.

10. David Bowie – The Next Day

Bowie’s first trip in 10 years gets more fascinatingly weird the longer you listen (see the sly Leonard Cohen parody “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die”). But it’s the naked emotion of “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” that sums up The Next Day – loud, melodic, intense, with the man pushing his thin white voice into the stratosphere.

11. Jake Bugg – Jake Bugg

Nineteen-year-old U.K. singersongwriter Bugg is an acoustic revivalist with the guts to shake up the traditions he loves. On his debut, Bugg gave ’62 Dylan, Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers a cocky Oasis charge, while packing his songs with sharp observations about street-fighting strife and coming-of-age confusion.

12. Danny Brown – Old 

The year’s most gripping hip-hop street-life narratives came from a crazy-coiffed Detroit native with a gift for vivid introspection and a taste for wild beats, from the Detroit techno of “Dubstep” to the avant- trap of “Side B (Dope Song)”. It doesn’t get much more disturbingly real than the raw-sex chronicle “Dope Fiend Rental”.

13. Laura Marling – Once I Was an Eagle

Marling is the most compelling singer-songwriter of the U.K. roots-revival scene, with a voice that conjures young Joni Mitchell. Kicking off with a heart-surgical seven-song opening suite, her fourth LP is the record Carey Mulligan in Inside Llewyn Davis might have made after kicking Justin Timberlake to the curb.

14. Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP 2

On the sequel to his 2000 masterpiece, Eminem taps the maniac genius who first scared America into submission – Stan’s little brother even came back to murder Mr. Mathers. But on “Headlights” he made peace with his estranged mom in what’s gotta be Slim Shady’s huggiest moment ever.

15. My Bloody Valentine – mvb

It’s the noise-rock Chinese Democracy – 22 years in the making and utterly throttling just the same. MBV’s third LP echoed their landmark Loveless with new shapes and colours, but the same deceptive tunefulness. And “Nothing Is” is nothing less than the art-rock equivalent of crazy-strong hash.

16. Beast – Smoke Swig Swear

Three-and-a-half-chord attacks that bleed between primal punk shrieks (“Fill the Hole”), nihilistic frockrock snarls (“Smoke Swig Swear”) and shamanistic religiosity (“Hand of God”) are not for everyone. But when Beckmann, Zietsman (bass), Nel (bass) and Righnini (drums) rock, they rock hard, lean, mean and gloriously messy.

17. Elton John – The Diving Board

Sir Elton reunites with rock’n’roll curator T Bone Burnett and old writing partner Bernie Taupin for a return to classic piano-man form. Mixing singer-songwriter balladry, music-hall storytelling, corner-church testifying and parlour-room nostalgia, it’s the sound of a legend with his showbiz guard dropped.

18. Drake – Nothing Was The Same

With Kanye breathing fire in rarified air, Drake is the people’s rapper, a smart kid conflicted about his fame, heart, family, everything except his mic potency. But what makes his lonely fantastic voyage matter is its emotional weight, which gets crucial amplification from Noah “40” Shebib’s whirlpool beats.

19. Bombino – Nomad

For this raw cross-cultural jam, Omara “Bombino” Moctar – a hotshit guitarist from Niger – hooked up with Black Key Dan Auerbach, who produced the LP with a cratedigging R&B/psych vibe. It’s full of hypnotic fuzz, and the cosmic country of “Tamiditine” conjures Workingman’s Dead – if it’d been made in the Sahara desert.

20. Lorde – Pure Heroine

Lorde’s debut ruled the pop charts thanks to a sultry, swaggering, hiphop-savvy, fully-grown voice and stark synth jams as earworm-y as Miley’s or Katy’s splashiest hits. Set against the music’s minimal throb, her languidly aphoristic lyrics balance rock-star swagger and torqued-up teenage angst with a rattle-nerve pathos and power like nothing else.

21. Dan Patlansky – Wooden Thoughts

When electric guitar ace, Dan Patlansky goes acoustic it’s a roots trip, not an unplugged MTV advert. Whether it’s a primal, stomping slide-driven take on Son House’s great “Preachin’ Blues”, moody originals like “Kwazi” or courageous covers of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”, his displays of jaw-dropping skill are never gratuitous.

22. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap

The second mixtape from this 20-year-old Chicago MC is the ultimate in psychedelic hip-hop. Chance spins Lil Wayne-meets-Hendrix language swirls punctuated by the real-life observations of a kid who grew up in a world where “it’s dark a lot … easier to find a gun than it is to finda fucking parking spot”.

23. Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt

Pearl Jam’s 10th album is a brooding, pissed-off set – great news for fans. Lots of Lightning Bolt‘s best moments are downtempo, including “Sirens”, their own haunted take on the PJ-inspired powerballad subgenre. But let’s be clear: The killer punk-metal rant “Mind Your Manners” should be played extremely loud.

24. Tamikrest – Chatma 

Mali’s young Tuareg guitar slingers keep the volume turned way up on their snaking, snarling guitars as they explore lyrical concerns of displacement, the desert and a desire for a country to call their own by way of the reggae and deep dub bass, spacious and spacey electronic effects, and moody acoustic songs of hope – all dedicated to the Tuareg women.

25. Dear Reader – Rivonia

How does an exiled chanteuse with a penchant for pretty indie-folk pop turn the psychological hangover of South African history into something of beauty? She lets the Disney lover in her come out to play on a chamber-pop concept album that puts the ghost of white guilt to rest by yearning with a desire for real truth and reconciliation.

26. Make-Overs – The Devil’s in the Details

Their “live to open reel tape recording” may be fuelled by an A.D.D. glee, but there’s also something endearing in the way A (guitar, vocals) and M (drums, vocals) carve a tune out of these sub-four-minute garage-rawk thrashings. The perfect lo-fidelity analogue antidote to over-digitised radio rock.

27. Sigur Rós – Kveikur

The drum-thunder shimmering vocal hook on “Ísjaki”! The distorto bass on “Brennisteinn”! All that riff fuzz on the title track! Singer-guitarist Jónsi is still bafflingly obtuse – maybe he’s falsettoing in Icelandic, maybe it’s nonsense – but with no keyboards in sight, Sigur Rós are that most rock of entities: the power trio. Come on feel the noize.

28. Haim – Days Are Gone

On their debut, these three harmonising Los Angeles sisters found an elusive art-pop sweet spot between TLC and Kate Bush – and won over indie kids and teenyboppers alike. “The Wire” plays like a great lost Eighties radio hit. But “My Song 5”, with its broken beats and snaky flow, is the hookmad high point.

29. Hinds Brothers – Ocean Of Milk

Aden and Wren Hinds spent years locating the Durban folk sounds of John Oakley-Smith and Syd Kitchen within a global nu-folk sound to create something entirely their own. Dan Roberts’ sparse production gives their expressive harmonies enough space to prove they’re terrific lyricists in a country where words are often struggled for.

30. Nine Inch Nails – Nine Ince Nails

On the first Nine Inch Nails album in five years, Trent Reznor threw a dance party at the edge of oblivion. Songs like “Came Back Haunted” and “All Time Low” combine the gnarled-gear drive of vintage NIN with the ice-storm atmospherics that Reznor has brought to his recent soundtrack work.

31. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

The National’s fast songs have never had such immediate surge, and their slow ones have never had such elegiac power. “If you want to see me cry, play Let It Be or Nevermind,” Berninger sings on “Don’t Swallow the Cap”, nailing the album’s ambition to make mood-swing rock with old-school gravitas.

32. Van Coke Kartel – Bloed, Sweet & Trane

Can Afrikaans rock’n’roll bands grow up without selling their souls to Skouspel? Francois van Coke reckons so. His band of garage rockers put pedal to the metal on their most cosmically chaotic album yet. It’s peak Kartel: loose but focused, hard ‘n always heavy. They’ve conjured up enough fresh, fist-pumping riffs here to last Afrikaansrock junkies a lifetime. There’s barbed-wire garage-rock tumbleweeds about gazing te diep in die bottel (“Die Dag“). There’s slow walking power anthems about knowing that you know nothing (“Môregloed“). And there are regular intoxicated liaisons with violence and friends with bad habits (“Here Man“). It’s so hectic, yet so heartfelt that you’ll virtually sweat blood and tears.

33. Earl Sweatshirt – Doris

Odd Future’s brightest cult star lives up to his reputation as an unholy verbal wizard on his long-awaited debut album. He also upends it – pushing past the amoral bomb-lobbing that won him notoriety with a newly-introspective style, perfectly suited to third-eye-opening beats courtesy of Pharrell, RZA and Earl himself.

34. Andy Lund – Faster We Run

Andy Lund’s second solo LP with The Mission Men may sketch weekends of wasted youth. But these are cautionary tales, filled with an emotional gravitas that only comes with having spent 20 years honing your craft without ever hitting the big time. For Lund, it’s the catharsis of getting lost in music that he remains resolutely committed to.

35. Black Cat Bones – Beatipiller

The primitive eccentricity of fire ‘n brimstoned boogies and atonal blues-punk squawks makes it unlikely you’ll hear (m)any of the Bones’ gutbucket blues-rock sermons on the radio. But the uncompromising aesthetic of these macho riff ‘n’rollers pack a powerfully authentic punch for any hardened blues-rock obsessive.

36. M.I.A – Matangi

Once again, the avant-R&B rebel proved the raw power of her global-cauldron dance beats and haterblasting lyrics. Matangi takes on her bird-flipping 2012 Super Bowl scandal and even has a tender lover’s jam in “Come Walk With Me”, finding revelation by living out contradiction

37. Die See – II

Building on Afrikaans rock building blocks ranging from Kerkorrel and Koos du Plessis to Van Coke Kartel and Brixton Barnard, Pretoria’s Die See claim the headland of spaced-out rock all to themselves. This is music you’d like to have playing while the country club’s burning and you’re watching from a safe distance, drink in hand.

38. Savages – Silence Yourself

“I’m cold and I’m cold and I’m cold and I’m stubborn,” Savages’ Jehnny Beth informs us on the band’s debut. With the repetitive insistence of a howitzer and the urgency of an air-raid siren, these four women made some of 2013’s scariest, most thrilling noise, finding new worlds of terror and stress in Eighties U.K. post-punk.

39. Gangs of Ballet – Yes/No/Grey

Forget the Coldplay comparisons. As the beat-heavy “All These Things”, the rock-riven “Kiss Kiss” and the Garbage-like “Isn’t It A Shame” forecast, there’s more to their elegantly devastated chart attacks (“Can’t Do This On My Own”, “Pass Me By”) than bland emotional ballads that do little to disturb things.

40. Tzozo – Amabills

Who better to help the Durban kwaito kingpin spread his self-help soundtrack than rural rags-toriches role models including maskandi legends Ihhashi Elimhlophe and Phuzekhemisi, and pantsula playaz Big Nuz and L’vovo? The kicker? Inviting Pastor Zondo round for a pulse-quickening call to consciousness.


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