Before we dive into yet another year-end rundown of music sounds that I deemed pleasurable, I wanted to say that this particular list was most likely influenced by events other than the physical media spinning on my Discman. This June, my wife and I realized a dream by moving to Maine, and the sudden proliferation of beauty and happiness made me more susceptible to messages about life being worthwhile and love being the most important thing. Am I seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, you ask? Well, I just jabbed a pen at my eye area to check, and nope! No glasses. So even though my retina is bleeding, if I had to pick one lyric I identify with from the albums on this list, it would be “I really am a lucky man.”
20. Future – Future Presents F.B.G.: The Movie
Auto-Tune was invented to be a form of sonic retouching, a way to ensure pitch perfection for any vocalist. But if you’ve heard Cher’s “Believe,” or seen a cover of Vogue lately, you know that the more you hide flaws, the more you’re hiding signs of life. Which makes Future’s artistic identity all the more transgressive and intoxicating. The Atlanta rapper uses Auto-Tune not as a support system, but as a sparring partner, his voice rejecting its attempts to correct it, resulting in an entrancing, narcotic croak that frays and stutters like a YouTube video played over spotty Wi-Fi. So while FBG: The Movie suffers a bit from your typical rap crew mixtape bloat (it’s intended to be a showcase for Future’s Free Bands collective), it has Future delivering pretty much every chorus, sounding deliriously confident and dangerously vulnerable, all at the same time. Like last year’s Rick Ross tape Rich Forever, FBG: The Movie has so many classic, filthy-loud beats it almost feels unfair. But where Ross washed his kingpin tales in bright comic book colors, Future is a decidedly flawed superhero – a man masked in Auto-Tune, fighting for air.
19. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady
Sometimes an artist is too talented for their own good. They operate on a different plane than their audience, seeing things they couldn’t possibly see, and thereby creating things that are difficult for them to digest. Like sci-fi writer Frank Herbert, whose novel Dune is a breathtakingly intricate achievement of the human imagination, and also boring as shit. Then there’s sci-fi R&B singer Janelle Monae, whose artistic vision is painstakingly complete to a level of confusion. On her magnificent 2010 debut The ArchAndroid, the whole Blade Runner-ish concept didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it didn’t matter, thanks to stone cold grooves like “Tightrope.” It’s essentially more of the same on The Electric Lady, which means Monae gives us an album’s worth of monster jams (“Dance Apocalyptic” will make you do just that, for instance), but almost buries them in unnecessary world building. There’s enough greatness here to forgive these failed attempts at concept album transcendence, but here’s hoping her next record is all sandworm, and no sand.
18. Of Montreal – Lousy With Sylvianbriar
If Kevin Barnes has made a bad record, I haven’t heard it. But it’s not for lack of trying. Over the course of a dozen albums, the driving creative force behind Of Montreal has taken his music in all kinds of questionable directions – he’s written the twee-est of bedroom folk songs, stacked harmonies like Phil Spector on acid, spilled his guts about a divorce over dance-pop beats, and then created a hedonistic alter ego to take that same approach into some seriously apeshit-sounding places. Lousy With Sylvianbriar represents his first major creative shift since that incredible divorce album (2007′s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?) – convincingly appropriating 1970s country-rock vernacular, full of cheerful slide guitars, chiming mandolins and Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris-style duets. It should come as no surprise that it works; in fact, it’s the most focused collection of Barnes songs in years. Whether he’s burrowing in the pocket of a loose, Sticky Fingers-era Stones groove or cooing an Opry-ready ballad, Barnes sticks to the one thing that has been consistent throughout his crazy-ambitious career arc – dense, whimsical, unforgettable wordplay. Like this doozy: “The voice with the synapse that calls blood bats into action has now entered the tablelands.”
17. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away
If anybody was worried that original guitarist and songwriter Mick Harvey’s exit from the Bad Seeds would be a death knell for Nick Cave’s most longstanding incarnation, the refrain from “Water’s Edge” should’ve quelled some nerves: “It’s the will of love/It’s the thrill of love/But the chill of love is comin’ down.” Lyrics don’t get much more Nick Cave-y than that, and Push The Sky Away, his 15th Bad Seeds record, is full of similar ruminations on romance and death and dark destinies coming to fruition by the seaside. It’s the band’s most beautiful work in this century, a collection of quietly ominous, pre-dawn ballads that are no less frightening for their prettiness. Perhaps Harvey could’ve convinced Cave to prune a lunkheaded line or two, or at least save them for Grinderman 3 (which is a thing that I’m just going to say is happening because IT NEEDS TO HAPPEN), especially the first couplet from the otherwise crushingly gorgeous “Mermaids.” But on the whole, this is a legacy-worthy installment, a deliciously restrained effort from a band that seemed due for an overreach.
16. Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze
In my best of 2011 list, I tried to explain why Kurt Vile’s lackadaisical brand of folk-rock is so damn compelling. The best I could do was the old cliché that “not trying makes you cool” (which, really? come on, self). Luckily, I don’t have to attempt it again this year, because on the warm, rolling dream that is Wakin On A Pretty Daze, Vile delivers a line that pretty much nails it – “Feeling bad in the best way a man can.” These are songs with narrators in need – of love, vindication, succor, direction in life, etc. Yet instead of wallowing, they’re more likely to step out into the sunshine, make a wisecrack and coast on the reverberating, 12-string acoustic waves. Songs like “Pure Pain,” “Shame Chamber” and “Too Hard” aren’t titled ironically, yet they’re streaked with hope, and anchored by Vile’s singing, which never rises above an “everything’s gonna be OK” kind of murmur. He’s singing about feelings that sting like freezing rain, if only because they make pretty days that much prettier.
15. Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band – Take Me To The Land Of Hell
Yoko Ono’s music has a pretty entrenched reputation as the ultimate in avant garde art student bullshit. And while she’s done plenty of that sort of thing – much of it with a man who remains universally thought of as a genius – her actual sonic identity is much more nuanced, marked by hyperactive new wave freakouts, strikingly fragile balladry, and nostalgic 1930s-style romps that make you wonder if she’s been a closet McCartney fan all these years. Her latest album with Plastic Ono Band (which includes son and bandleader Sean Lennon, as well as guests like Questlove, Nels Cline and the surviving Beastie Boys) is a worthy addition to a musical legacy both aggressively offbeat and quirkily traditional. Yes, there are the stereotypical Ono shriek-outs, which make tracks like the opening rock/poetry slam pastiche “Moonbeams” sound off-the-rails dangerous, but there are also meditations on true love that would fit snugly on Double Fantasy (“There’s No Goodbye Between Us”) and a cheeky, cabaret-style kiss-off to an ex that’s as charming as music got in 2013 (“Leaving Tim”). Now an octogenarian, Yoko sounds as feisty and invested as ever – so much so that a trip to hell now feels like one unforgettably whacked-out kind of party.
14. David Bowie – The Next Day
If somebody put a gun to my head and demanded I point out a weakness of David Bowie in his prime (which for my money began with 1971′s Hunky Dory and ended with 1977′s Heroes), I’d probably single out his singing voice. In reality, Bowie’s reedy quaver had an enchantingly alien quality that fit all the interstellar/dystopian subject material quite snugly, but I wouldn’t call it beautiful, and hey, this guy’s about to kill me here. And that makes the distinctive pleasure of Bowie’s 21st century material downright ironic – and an argument in favor of the artist being something more than human, like that all-knowing glow-being from The Abyss or something. Because on records like 2002′s Heathen and this year’s surprise release The Next Day, David Bowie’s singing is the number one reason to pay attention – his timbre more resonant, his phrasing more nuanced, his 66-year-old vocal chords responsible for some of the most solemnly pretty noise in rock and roll. The Next Day treads some familiar terrain for Bowie fans – elegant, gothic rock songs about fame, the apocalypse and space dancing – but this time around, our messenger traverses it with a deep, knowing croon, and that makes all the difference. His message used to be “hang onto yourself,” but now that the ride is almost over, he’d rather we sit back, relax, and accept the inevitable with a smile.
13. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City
Like Coldplay, Vampire Weekend is a band that invites an easy kind of hate – for starters, you’ve got the Graceland-aping trust fund ballads, upper crust New England hipster duds, and tween-friendly band name. But let’s pretend that their ’80s Afro-pop hooks weren’t discussed as if they were revolutionary, that they’re all children of Indianapolis schoolteachers, and that they’ve had a good band name this whole time (for the sake of this exercise, we’ll go with “Good Band Name”). And you’ve got a group that can craft a cheerful hook as effectively as anybody, who stuffed its first two albums with so many of them that it seemed unfair, and whose third release manages to work in some stunning mid-mid-life crisis poetry without skimping on the earworms. In this vacuum I’ve created, Modern Vampires Of The City (aka Good Band Name III) is a fantastic work of art, where singer/co-writer Ezra Koenig (aka Frank Stevens) tries to reconcile his faith in God, which is tough to do when he can’t even keep a relationship from falling apart during a cross-country trip. “Wisdom’s a gift/But you’d trade it for youth,” he sings during the lyrical encyclopedia that is “Step.” Considering how compelling his band has become since the days of “Who gives a fuck about an oxford comma,” I’m compelled to disagree.
12. Carcass – Surgical Steel
I suspect my relationship with death is like most Americans – it gives me a hazy, queasy feeling that I quickly distract myself from with the bounty of cheap food and endless entertainment at my disposal. So when an existential coward like me puts on a record like Surgical Steel, he feels a crazed, drooling kind of glee – here’s a group of middle-aged British guys who channel their death obsession into 52 minutes of relentless, chest cavity-collapsing thrash. This is Carcass’ first record since breaking up in 1996, and it’s (ironically) a stunning rebirth, with Jeff Walker’s mostly unintelligible, coked-up-harpy vocals doing god knows what kind of damage to his throat over Dan Wilding’s firebomb drumming, the guitar parts containing just enough catchy Iron Maiden interplay to make beautiful sense of the chaos. And when you listen closely enough to make out a line or two, chances are it’s worth the effort (e.g. “A working class hero is something to bleed.”). Metal has always been a refuge for the insecure, but discovering a Carcass with this much life in it makes me especially, screamingly grateful for every drop of blood I’ve got.
11. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name
Even for a genre where boasting is like breathing, 2013 was an especially egomaniacal year in hip hop – whether it was thrillingly unstable, moody and defensive, reeking of flop sweat, or recorded while waiting for the yacht cable guy. But nobody explored the depths of their own awesomeness with the level of measured cool achieved by Pusha T, whose first official solo record completely delivers on the audacious yet matter-of-fact confidence of its title. It’s a feat even more impressive when you consider the pressure to perform – years into his solo career after the demise of Clipse, Pusha T had put out a mixtape and an EP, and landed some prominent guest verses, but hadn’t really proven he could carry a record. While hip hop is friendlier to its elder statesmen than it used to be, a bust from Push here would’ve been a killer. Not that he sounds concerned in the least over the raw industrial clatter of “Numbers On the Boards,” where he lays claim to “36 years of doin’ dirt like it’s Earth Day,” his gruff, laconic flow selling the hardest beat of the year, illustrating the grime and glory of the drug game in a way that’s both romantic and weathered from experience. Even with the murderer’s row of talent producing him (West, Pharrell Williams, The-Dream, etc.) and a top-form guest spot from the seemingly unstoppable Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T dominates with a steady hand, like the lone survivor in a deal gone wrong.
10. M.I.A. – Matangi
It’s always been tough to accept the plight of the wealthy celebrity – “heavy lies the crown” makes more sense when applied to presidents than, say, Super Bowl halftime show performers. But ever since making an indelible, kaleidoscopic imprint on the world of popular music with her 2007 album Kala, M.I.A. has been in active rebellion against the idea of being a pop star, and it has been as compelling as any artistic evolution this millennium. On Matangi, her fourth record, the English/Sri Lankan singer, rapper, songwriter and noise wrangler remains in distress about her position of influence, exhorting her listeners to both dance and revolt over squalls of mechanized drumming. And while no song avoids these thrilling, dissonant bursts, M.I.A. does gives those pop sensibilities more room to breathe than she did on her last record, 2011′s cold, tangled, underrated Maya. Sensibilities that are most evident on “Come Walk With Me,” which pairs a sunny, it-takes-two philosophy with an endlessly hummable chorus, giving us enough time to appreciate those incomparable summer jam chops before the sledgehammer drums shatter our reverie. The crown remains heavy, but M.I.A. has come up with a surefire way to deal with it – make sure her records are even heavier.
9. Phosphorescent – Muchacho
Matthew Houck’s albums have always been delicate affairs, perfect for the emotional rollercoaster one goes through while nursing a hangover – confusion, regret, inexplicable elation, then regret again. So it’s quite fitting that his sixth album as Phosphorescent was inspired by a recent lonely, heartsick period in Mexico, where an exhausted Houck mourned the loss of his NYC studio (which had to be moved thanks to re-zoning) and the demise of a relationship. But this time around, the singer/songwriter is just as interested in the party that happens before the pity-party, resulting in the most robust production of his career – in between the fragile, spiritual beauty of the record’s sunrise/sunset bookends, Muchacho contains pedal-steel swathed country strolls, a ragged, swirling Neil Young-ish opus, and 1980s adult contemporary synths. Like all Phosphorescent records, it’s all threaded together by the distinctly earnest, about-to-crack nature of Houck’s voice, which can make a like like “I’ll fix myself up, to come and be with you” sound like the rawest, most solemn promise.
8. Action Bronson & Party Supplies – Blue Chips 2
Apparently Action Bronson has been recording his major label debut for Atlantic Records. Here’s hoping they’re saving as much of the budget as possible for sample clearance. Because this mixtape, a sequel to last year’s stellar Blue Chips, contains what is possibly the most entertaining melange of looped pop hits this side of Paul’s Boutique – after Blue Chips 2, any record that doesn’t give Bronsolino at least one ironically applied oldie or ’80s smash to spit over will feel like a disappointment. Not to make BC2 sound like a gimmick, because it’s not. (It doesn’t work because it samples “Sledgehammer,” it works because it has Action Bronson opining, “Uhhh … fly shit … grown man shit” over a sample of “Sledgehammer.”) Like the first Blue Chips, this tape features plenty of RZA-like, scratchy soul loops to back up verses loaded with references to food, sex and 1990s athletes (Nick Van Exel, take a bow). But the whole thing is just more fun this time around, what with the snippets of Applebee’s commercials and beats born from “Tequila” and Tracy Chapman’s “Gimme One Reason.” Few rappers are feeling it like Action Bronson these days, and BC2 is the perfect platform for his magnificent, tongue-in-cheek shit talk.
7. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
Neko Case is sick and tired of your expectations. “If I puked up some sonnets, would you call me a miracle?” she asks on “Night Still Comes,” one of many tracks on her stunning sixth album that discover freedom through fatalistic directness. The singer/songwriter has never sounded this fed up – with crummy parents, dumb-ass lovers and those pesky illustrated lampreys – and her scalding sarcasm turns the lovely, warm bath of a typical Case production into a complex, simmering stew. Gone are the love-as-tornado metaphors, replaced by the rallying cries of the defiantly heartbroken – “You didn’t know what a man was/Until I showed you,” she belts triumphantly over the sensational gallop of “Man.” All this vitriol does not change the fact that The Worse Things Get is a joy to listen to on the level of Case’s two previous masterworks (2006′s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood and 2009′s Middle Cyclone). From ghostly a cappella breaks to burbling baritone-sax arrangements, quiet acoustic reflections to finger-wagging girl group choruses, this is as ambitious and assured as Case has ever sounded. On the record’s opening song, she asks herself if she’d rather be a king or a king’s pet. Hearing the absolute power she wields in the studio, you can guess which one she chooses.
6. Rhye – Woman
R&B is generally viewed as the sexiest genre of music, the go-to soundtrack for doing stuff on bearskin rugs by the fire and the like. And while there’s great R&B that embraces such corny clichés (see Kelly, R.), I think that for the most part, this stuff is at its most sensual when it’s about more than just sex. Enter Rhye, an L.A. duo whose immaculate quiet storm of a debut album is full of excellent pick-up lines, but delivers them with the sweetness and vulnerability of a heat-of-the-moment “I love you.” It’s the same delicate emotional balance that defined Sade at her peak – and listening to how Woman weaves blankets of synthesizers for lead singer Milosh to tuck us in with, there’s no doubt that Rhye is more than just influenced by the queen of slow-burning romance. This album is a tribute to her. So for those of us who find tenderness to be erotic, these guys were the smoothest operators of 2013.
5. James Blake – Overgrown
When artists say they don’t really care about attention or awards, it’s usually a lie they’re not even trying that hard to sell. But on the title track of James Blake’s hypnotic second album, his pleas for constancy over frivolity are either totally sincere, or the product of a magnificent fibber: “I don’t wanna be a star/But a stone on the shore/A lone door frame in the wall/When everything’s overgrown.” I can’t help but take him at his word, because Overgrown itself is an argument for the beauty of things that last, a collection of simple mantras about what truly matters woven through a wintry forest of lulling, whispering electronica. Blake has created a seamlessly entrancing experience akin to his devastating 2011 debut, continuing to draw no lines between moments of transcendence and pain. But there’s a lot more of the former this time around, thanks to a handful of love songs that are as profoundly spartan as a blue collar engagement ring – “To the last/You and I,” he croons, leaving the flowery language to those who crave stardom above all.
4. Drake – Nothing Was The Same
The most compelling thing about Drake is the way he has his cake and eats it too – crafting verses that are drenched in both bravado and insecurity, making references to his days as a child star while also saying he started from the bottom, making music that’s muted and moody, yet somehow perfectly calibrated for the pop charts. These dichotomies could be infuriating in lesser hands – and on lesser Drake albums – but on Nothing Was The Same, the artist’s vision is so thoroughly realized, his collective strengths, weaknesses, priorities and fears make for a story as seamless as its immaculately sequenced tracks. If the arc of his tortured millionaire persona is a put-on, it’s a fantastically executed one, because on NWTS, the cognac-for-one romantic despair of Drake’s previous work evolves into a grander fear of the other shoe dropping. The more money he makes (which, according to his verse on “All Me,” is so much he’s forgotten the amount), the more he feels like it can’t last. So much of the record finds the rapper revisiting the fantasies of his 1990s childhood, creating a two-song sequence based on Wu-Tang Clan’s most magnanimous single, making Fresh Prince of Bel Air references, comparing his earning potential to Dan Marino’s in his prime. These would seem to be the only things this prodigy-turned-superstar can take comfort in, if it weren’t for all those sumptuous, late-night-neon grooves.
3. Kanye West – Yeezus
A casual scan of a Kanye West lyric sheet or Twitter feed will make it clear that this is a man who loves fashion. So he’s probably familiar with Coco Chanel’s famous adage, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” For his album Yeezus, West looked in the mirror and removed almost everything, stripping his ornate production style down to the most visceral noises, accessorizing them only with his rampaging id, intense ego, and super-intense superego. If it’s not his best record, it’s certainly his most exhilarating, and shamelessly human. West, who co-produced Yeezus with an aging Snarf, uses his own gasps for breath as a percussion instrument and features a hysterical scream like it’s a guitar solo. He twists Justin Vernon’s lullaby tenor into something slimy and subterranean. When looking for a metaphor for his song about divorce, he goes with Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit.” It’s a flailing, agonizing, extraordinary experience from an artist whose refusal to be tagged and classified might come off awkwardly on talk shows, but burns bright as diamonds in his art.
2. Bill Callahan – Dream River
Two years after releasing an album called Apocalypse, Bill Callahan resurfaced in 2013 with the most life-affirming record of the year. Dream River begins with Callahan in full story-song cowboy mode, sitting alone in a hotel bar. But instead of brooding about stuff like how every flower turns to hay, he relishes in the simple joy of a two-word vocabulary (“Beer” and “thank you”), appreciating everyone in the room, just because they exist. From an artist who has tended to espouse a worldview where even the silver linings are tarnished, this is an unexpected, enlightening surprise, like encountering a Larry McMurtry character in a Cormac McCarthy novel. And just when you start to ask why, track two starts playing, and you realize he’s in love. “You looked like worldwide Armageddon while you slept,” Callahan sings in his rich, whiskey-barrel basso. “You looked so peaceful, you scared me.” Fear of losing one’s full happiness is right there in that voice. Fear, and awe, and gratitude. Dream River overflows with moments like these – a cycle of eight songs that represent a metaphysical moment of clarity. Bill Callahan might look at life as one arcing flight through the air, but he’s made an album about the times before you land in which you truly feel weightless.
1. Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap
Smoking cigarettes doesn’t quite have the cultural cache that it used to – these days, kids need an especially potent sense of mischief, rebellion and self-loathing to get hooked. It’s this precise emotional cocktail that fuels Chance The Rapper on Acid Rap, where he gives a fascinating, charismatic performance that puts him on the short list of young artists who seem primed to leave their fingerprints all over the ’10s. The 20-year-old Chicagoan spent his formative years ingesting Kanye West’s college trilogy and Lil Wayne’s mixtape revolution, and he soaks his second tape in the balmy soul samples of the former, and the effortlessly hilarious, cough-addled wordplay of the latter. But Acid Rap is about way more than influences. Chance has his own fully formed persona here, a laughing-and-pointing playground pest whose vulnerability is clearly visible between all the “nyeah nyeah, nyeah-nyeah-nyeahs.” He litters his verses with a mischievous, nasal quack, which logic dictates should be annoying, but instead is as playful and essential as a Kanye “Haaah!” “Cigarettes, oh cigarettes/My mama think I stink/I got burn holes in my hoodies/All my homies think it’s dank,” Chance sings over the trembling church organ of “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” making fun of himself while making us root for him at the same time. I’m addicted, and not just because it makes me look cool.
Atoms For Peace – Amok; Danny Brown – Old; Cakes Da Killa – The Eulogy; Disclosure – Settle; The Flaming Lips – The Terror; Jim James – Regions Of Light And Sound Of God; Paul McCartney – New; Queens of the Stone Age – … Like Clockwork; Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels; Ty Segall – Sleeper; She & Him – Volume Three; Skeletonwitch – Serpents Unleashed; Shugo Tokumaru – In Focus?; Tree – Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out; Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt