Top 10 Albums of 2013

Countdown gif

It’s customary to start year-end lists by chewing some fat about how making them is strange and difficult work, and in general, I find that these intros can be exceedingly skippable. Everyone knows that album rankings are subjective (even when they’re created on behalf of a publication or website), and no one needs to be reminded that the list maker didn’t listen — and couldn’t have listened, of course! — to every single thing that came out in the preceding 12 months. You don’t share Santa Claus’ knack for bending the space-time continuum. Understood. But before I get to my Top 10 albums, I would like to share a quick story about how I came up with my list, and how Beyoncé helped me find meaning in this whole strange and difficult exercise.

Now, you may be saying to yourself “Hey! We all agreed to save Beyoncé for next year’s lists!” If so, I don’t blame you. Maybe you worked long and hard on your Top 10 and wanted to avoid shuffling things around at the last minute. Fair enough. Or maybe you think making a snap judgement on an album that looms so large over the pop music landscape is just plain reckless. (OK, now you’re just being melodramatic.) But Beyoncé has become so enmeshed with how I view the music I listened to in 2013, it simply had to be part of this list. In fact, it decided how the list below would be ordered.

It all started, as you might imagine, on December 13, when I did my morning Twitter check and saw that — surprise! — a new Beyoncé album had been released in Friday’s wee small hours. I hadn’t been waiting with bated breath or anything, but I like Beyoncé, so I was happy, and I followed along gleefully as reactionary tweets, blog posts and news stories poured in, offset by posters who unwittingly (yet predictably) heightened the moment by officially declaring that they didn’t care about it. (I’ll never get why people actively express indifference in this way. I can understand the impulse to point out which side of a dividing line you are, but you can also, you know, just ignore stuff? Whatever.)

It quickly became clear that the defining characteristic of the album’s release was the surprise. How did Beyoncé manage to keep things under her hat? The mystery brought people such joy. The U.S. government’s most secretive organization can’t stop hemorrhaging sensitive information, yet this international pop star who was due for a set of new songs somehow managed to keep the entire world in the dark about their existence? It’s damn-near unbelievable. You could practically watch the pedestal we’ve put her on growing taller by the minute, and we hadn’t even heard the album yet. (Not being able to listen to Beyoncé unless you shelled out $15.99 on iTunes probably actually heightened this effect, since saying something about the album’s release was free, whereas saying something about its contents was pretty damn expensive.)

While I thought the surprise was fun, the part that got me all riled up was that it was happening on a Friday. And not just any Friday, though that fact alone would have probably pushed me over the purchase precipice. (I feel like more artists should consider Friday drops, especially when releasing material that fuels weekend activities.) That Friday happened to be the day before a company holiday party, an event for which Mrs. YHT and I would need to dress up.

Playing Beyoncé while getting ready for formal events has become a tradition for us. It started a few years ago in New York, when we were scurrying around a Queens hotel room, gussying ourselves up for a friend’s wedding. I’d recently gotten into “Countdown,” and despite Mrs. YHT’s skepticism — I hadn’t strong feelings one way or the other about Beyoncé before I heard “Countdown” — I revved up Spotify, hit play, and the rest is history.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that I’m not the most sophisticated person on planet Earth. I seldom wear a tie to work, and while do I own a few suits, none of them fit me all that well. One fits me like sausage casing fits sausage. Another fits me like a beer coozie made for a can fits a bottle. Somehow I have one that’s a combination of both. The suit that comes closest to fitting right now is black, which is a whole other problem. As I understand the guidelines associated with these kinds of things (I don’t, really), black suits are overly formal for weddings and work holiday parties, meaning that, even at my dressiest, I am, by rule, vulgar. But there are these fleeting moments — when steam from the hotel room shower is dissipating, and my wife and I are half-dressed, buttoning, zipping, ironing and perfuming — when we get to visit a place in our imaginations where we’re the kind of couple that does this stuff all the time. I’m certain I wouldn’t want to live in that place, but it’s fun to pop in every once in a while, and “Countdown” is an outstanding spirit guide.

There’s the sophistication bit, with lines about dressing to the nines and material trappings, but deep down, the song’s about dedication — how, in a committed relationship, you need to show off for each other every once in a while. It’s about fueling that spark that sustains marriages through good times and bad, and the more I think about it, that’s what makes those golden preparatory moments so special. Mrs.YHT and I hurry about the same space, becoming better versions of ourselves, and at the end, before we leave to go watch other people get hitched, or to see our coworkers dressed to the nines, we get to look at each other and say “You look great!” I love it. It’s become my favorite part of going these types of events. (Don’t tell the open bar I said that.)

So what does all this have to do with year-end list making? Well, my luck with the timing of the Beyoncé drop got me thinking about how strongly the experiences we have while listening to an album — the other halves of the accompaniment binary — influence how we perceive the quality of that album. Critics have to separate the two, but for most of us, music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a part of our lives, consoling us when we’re sad or creating a tradition out of something that could otherwise feel mundane. It hit me that instead of trying to rank albums based on which ones are objectively best (impossible) or that I feel the strongest affinity for (the subjectivity-friendly method I’d used perviously), I should spend some time reminiscing about the experiences I had while listening to music in 2013 and go from there. Using the Beyonce/holiday party pairing as my guide, I started shifting the leading candidates around, allowing myself to factor in interviews I’d done, the shows I’d gone to and blog posts I was particularly happy about, and what started to emerge was a surprisingly accurate snapshot of what the music that was released this year meant to me.

I can honestly say I’ve never been happier with a Top 10. In honor of my epiphany and the artist who inspired it, I’m switching to a countdown format. I hope you enjoy, and I hope you find something on this list that enhances the experiences you have in 2014.

10. Matthew E. White — Outer Face

Matthew E. White

Jealousy wells up every time I think about how people from outside the U.S. get to put Big Inner on this year’s Top 10 albums lists. I’m pretty sure that emotion comes from the same place as that feeling you get when someone tells you they’re just starting to watch The Wire or Breaking Bad. Not to worry though — 2013 saw another A+ release from Matthew E. White, and its inclusion here is no cursory nod to its older, full-length sibling. Outer Face stands on its own merits, thanks in part to the compositional limitations White imposed. No guitars. No horns. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Draconian, right? (OK, now I’m the one who’s being melodramatic.) But the album’s condensed formula lays bare White’s playful sense of adventure and clear talent for arrangement, resulting in a durable five-song collection that’s every bit as groovy as his debut effort.

I’m sorry, but I have to nerd out here for a second. I beam with civic pride when I listen to White’s music. For those of you who don’t live in Richmond, here’s what it’s like living in the same town as Matthew E. White: It’s like when you have a ridiculously good player on your favorite college basketball team who’s fun to watch and clearly cares more about the team’s success than he does about when he’ll get to the NBA or how high he’ll go in the draft. It changes everything. The whole program gets a boost — even the fans, because getting to see that type of positivity in action is powerfully affecting.

OK, now I’m wondering if he can dunk a basketball. Dude is tall.

Matthew E. White — “Hot Hot Hot” [Spotify/iTunes]

9. Kanye West — Yeezus

Kanye West

I don’t know. I really don’t.

Yeezus has been a challenge. There are things I absolutely hate about it (the bombast, the misogyny, the infidelity — the list goes on…), and I’m still not sure the positives outweigh the negatives. I could end up really disliking this album in five years. Then again, I grew to love 808s and Heartbreak in a way that I didn’t right away, so who knows. The whole thing is complicated by West’s latest PR campaign — a case of verbal diarrhea so surreal that people actually believed a satire website that quoted him as saying that he was “the next Nelson Mandela.” I mean… you have to be saying some crazy shit for that to seem plausible. Frustratingly, his egotistical rants have cast a shadow over his album, forcing me to take seriously some lyrics that I would have written off as sarcastic, making it even harder for me to enjoy the album without reservation.

HOWEVER…

…it’s even harder to ignore the shadow West casts over popular music, and Yeezus may be his most visionary album yet. The spartan tone, the stark coloring, with severe darkness offset by flashes of light, the looseness that comes from stripping away elements that normally glue a track together… we’re going to be hearing people trying to reproduce these sounds for years to come. As annoying as it is to give credit to someone who begs for it at every turn, I have to hand it to West and Rick Rubin, both for what Yeezus is and what it will beget.

Kanye West — “Blood On The Leaves” [Spotify/iTunes]

8. The Shouting Matches — Grownass Man

The Shouting Matches

Part of the fun of putting your thoughts on the Internet each week is looking back and cringing at the posts you end up hating would write differently if given the opportunity. My Shouting Matches post gets 2013’s Mulligan Award, because it followed the same narrative everyone was pushing: “Look! It’s Justin Vernon! He’s so chill on this album! It’s not a Bon Iver album, but we get to talk about Bon Iver by comparing this album to a Bon Iver album!” The first-take informality of Grownass Man certainly adds to the project’s charm, but I should have made a much bigger deal of Phil Cook’s involvement.

You know how well-loved books develop creases in their spines opposite the pages that have been read over and over? I’m pretty sure my copy of the American songbook would have the same creases as Cook’s. His organ work is probably his most noticeable contribution here, but I’d argue that the whole thing radiates a cozy warmth that Megafaun fans recognize as Cook’s signature, and basking in that comfortable glow has been a wellspring of joy and comfort for me throughout the year.

Quick story: Mrs. YHT and I caught a Megafaun show when we were on vacation in Portland, OR a couple years back. I had a few drinks during their set — enough to work up the courage to shake Phil Cook’s hand afterward — and I, embarrassingly, said something to the effect of “Hey, I heard you’re from North Carolina! I’m from Richmond, Virginia!” As if being on the other side of the country somehow made Richmond and Durham geographically closer to one another. (Talk about cringing in retrospect…)

The Shouting Matches — “Gallup, NM” [Spotify/iTunes]

7. Pretty & Nice — Golden Rules for Golden People

Pretty & Nice

I wrote a fair number of words about Golden Rules for Golden People this year, starting when it came out and again when I interviewed the band for rvamag.com. If you know nothing about Pretty & Nice, I’d recommend starting with the first link. It talks about what makes the album exceptional, but it also does a decent job of capturing how I feel about the band in general, which is that they’re musically valuable in a way that I think sets them apart (I swear it’ll make sense after you read that first post). I’m not sure I have too much to add, aside from a benediction that the world needs more bands that put Pretty & Nice’s level of care and focus into recording.

Pretty & Nice — “The Frog” [Spotify/iTunes]

6. Lorde — Pure Heroine

Lorde

I can remember the exact moment when Pure Heroine went from being an amazing-sounding album from this new artist I was excited about to being something more. I was doing my first front-to-back listen on Spotify, the second half had just started, and a certain lyric rang out so clearly that it was like walking through a thick forest and finding a clearing that was bright with sunlight:

I’m kind of over getting told to put my hands up in the air. So there.

That did it. So crisp and rational, with subtext out the wazoo. That line showed me that “Royals” wasn’t a fluke — that this (then) 16-year-old really did have a knack for writing incisive lyrics that can cut through Top 40 radio noise. As for the themes she’s writing about, much has been made of whether she’s the right messenger, the suggestion being that a middle-class white person isn’t allowed to critique the stagnant and comically out-of-touch lyrics that have been plaguing pop and rap. But… shouldn’t we all be pitching in to fight consumerism? When did worshiping money become so defensible? I know we live in a staunchly capitalist country, but I haven’t seen excess justified this shamelessly since Gordon Gekko stood up at the Teldar Paper shareholders’ meeting. Take the line in “Royals” about Maybachs. They’re terrible investments. Want to know how I know? Daimler discontinued them. The company that made them couldn’t even afford them. I realize that the “started from the bottom now we’re here” narrative isn’t going to vanish anytime soon — nor should it — but why should we let “here” be defined so poisonously?

I’m speaking in absolutes, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to enjoying my fair share of consumerist music. You won’t find me swearing off Jay Z’s back catalog, and one of my favorite songs on Beyoncé takes place in and around a limo. I guess my point is that Lorde’s message is grounded in a legitimate concern, and she deserves a chance to prove that she’s sincere.

As a side note, Matt Klimas of RVA’s own Snowy Owls and Low Branches wrote a wonderful blurb about Pure Heroine for rvamag.com’s Top 25 list. His gets to the album’s sound a bit more, and it’s definitely worth a read, if you have the chance. (Double side note: I got to blurb James Blake’s Overgrown for the same list, and you can check that out here.)

Lorde — “Tennis Court” [Spotify/iTunes]

5. J. Roddy Walston & the Business — Essential Tremors 

J. Roddy Walston and the Business

My experience thus far with J. Roddy Walston and The Business has been cloaked in a most enjoyable ambiguity. I started hearing about these guys in the context of RVA music, but they’re not from Richmond (as I understand it, they’re based in Baltimore but their frontman lives here). I haven’t seen them in person and couldn’t make it out to their Halloween show at Strange Matter, but I keep hearing about what an amazing live show they put on. I’ve gotten to know Essential Tremors well, but it can seem like I’m listening to different bands from track to track. Frankly, I still don’t know a ton about who I’m dealing with here. And you know what? I’m loving every minute of it.

Where some albums find strength in cohesion, Essential Tremors packs a more diverse punch, especially when it comes to vocals. There’s screaming and harmony, chanting and crooning, sexy and scary… it’s all there, and it all works. Letting this thing play through on my turntable is like shuffling a handful of my favorite greatest hits records, not just because because of the stylistic variance, but because it’s one of those collections where you could point to just about any song and say “That right there is the best song on the album” and I’d believe you. I hesitate to write a ton more, because I’ve yet to go back and see how Essential Tremors compares to the rest of the band’s work, but I know how it compares to the other music I heard in 2013 — favorably.

This isn’t all that related, but can I share with you this amazing quote from the group’s Wikipedia page? I gather that Walston was asked why he plays a real, upright piano at his shows, and this was his response:

I don’t play keyboards – I play piano. It’s not like you’ll tell a guitar player to play keytar.

Bad. Ass.

J. Roddy Walston & The Business — “Take It As It Comes” [Spotify/iTunes]

4. Daft Punk — Random Access Memories

Daft Punk

Random Access Memories has been an interesting case study for me, and it has everything and nothing to do with baseball.

It’s a truth that becomes increasingly apparent with each year I age that there’s only so much crap I can stay current on, and a few years back, after I’d gotten into the NFL (I grew up in an anti-football household) and had become even more obsessed with basketball than I already was (fantasy NBA, jersey-buying habit, etc.), I made the conscious decision to start ignoring baseball. I’ll hop in near the end of the playoffs and watch as much of the World Series as I can, but I know the names of maybe 3% of MLB players, and — much to the chagrin of the former little leaguer and trading card collector in me — I’ve stopped feeling guilty about it.

It’s one thing to passively ignore stuff — we do it all the time without even trying — but actively ignoring things is a more interesting matter, and the to-do surrounding the release of RAM felt like one of those decision points. I’d never given Daft Punk the time of day, but this time, for whatever reason — Panda Bear’s involvement definitely caught my eye — I opted in. Had Mr. Lennox not been involved, who knows — maybe it would have gone the other way. But as it stands, I’m in, and I’m pleased with the results so far, to put things mildly. It doesn’t hurt that the on-ramp I took happened to put me directly on the most critically acclaimed stretch of road the duo has ever paved. That part does feel a little weird. Bandwagon-y, even. As best I can remember, I decided to give the album a shot before reading all those positive reviews, but I can’t help thinking that this is what deciding to start following the Red Sox in 2004 must have been like.

That said, bands aren’t sports teams. (Notwithstanding the fact that Daft Punk wear helmets.) One of the great things about music is that you’re allowed to start liking anything at any time, as long as you’re being true to yourself, and I’ll be damned if RAM isn’t one of the most complete and exacting albums that’s ever hijacked my withering attention span.

Daft Punk — “Doin’ It Right” (feat. Panda Bear) [Spotify/iTunes]

3. Jason Isbell — Southeastern 

Jason Isbell

I’m pretty sure I told someone (or wrote on this blog — I can’t remember) that Jason Isbell’s Southeastern would end up being number one on this list, which makes me a liar. Oops. But it’s somewhat academic, because these next three form a distinct tier of albums that stand apart from the rest, each in its own, meaningful way.

I had a special bonding experience with this one. Pictured above is the vinyl copy of Southeastern I managed to snag at BK Music a whole week before the album’s release date. BK is great at getting limited stuff like this, and the benefits run deeper than having a cool, hand-numbered version of something. That first week with the album felt slightly more personal, like knowing a secret before it becomes common knowledge. I’m certain I would have fallen in love with these songs either way, but I have to think that initial bonus week helped them sink in more deeply, or at least differently, than if I’d waited for it to show up on Spotify.

There’s some serendipity at work here, as well, because the fact that this is such a personal record for Isbell heightened the intimacy of that experience. He speaks through a narrator in a number of these songs, but the themes are unmistakable and powerful: trying to change, sobering up, staring yourself in the face and finding out who you really are. As effortlessly as these songs are sung — Isbell’s words always seem to fall out of his mouth, like singing is as easy as breathing to him — the experiences that inspired them were clearly anything but easy. In fact, they sound downright brutal, both on account of the lyrics themselves and the interviews he gave in the wake of the album’s release. But Southeastern is also pretty, and given what I know about Isbell recent past and the stories behind songs like “Cover Me Up” and “Live Oak,” I’d say it’s as good an example of the pain-to-beauty sublimation process as you’ll find.

Jason Isbell — “Elephant” [Spotify/iTunes]

2. Beyoncé — Beyoncé

Beyonce

I’ve already talked your ear off about Beyoncé, so I’ll try to keep this super brief.

That whole pro-relationship, maintaining-the-spark thing that I love about “Countdown”? It’s everywhere on Beyoncé. EVERYWHERE. It’s amazing. Perhaps Matthew Perpetua of BuzzFeed Music and Fluxblog said it best when he tweeted the following:

Perpetua tweet

Just as compelling is the album’s relationship with feminism. Let me be clear about one thing right away: I’m certain that it’s not for me to evaluate Beyoncé’s brand of feminism. But I am comfortable in saying that I’ve found the feminist subject matter on Beyoncé to be both thought-provoking and inspiring. It makes me want to be a better husband, brother, son and friend. It makes me feel like, as “Flawless” guest speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie might say, we should all be feminists. I’m not saying the album’s message is perfect — it’s personal, and no person is perfect — but it strikes me as an overall positive contribution. Proof that pop music can do something. Add in the warm and fuzzy (and sexy) way marriage is portrayed, the thousand little catchy/clever/virtuosic moments that have made the album an absolute joy to play and replay and replay again, the happy coincidence of when it appeared…

I really like this album.

Beyoncé — “Drunk In Love” (feat. Jay Z) [Spotify/iTunes]

1. Vampire Weekend — Modern Vampires of the City

Vampire Weekend

There are times when I start listening to an album and say to myself “This totally kicks ass! I can’t wait to write about it!” And then there are the times when I say “This totally kicks ass! I’m definitely not writing about this!”  When Modern Vampires of the City came out, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that I was dealing with the latter. I wrote a short thing about “Unbelievers” recently, but other than that, I sat this one out. It’s not that there hasn’t been stuff to say. There has — and if you were so inclined, I bet you could read all day long about the thing. Nor am I worried that picking MVOTC apart will ruin it. The dis- and re-assembly process tends to pull me in more often than it pushes me away.

Maybe this will explain it: Do you ever clear your schedule so you can watch the season premiere or finale of a favorite TV show? And by “clear your schedule,” I mean ignoring your phone, closing your laptop, getting out your tastiest snacks, pretending the rest of the world doesn’t exist, huddling up with a small (possibly nonexistent) circle of people who love the show as much as you do… Ever do that? That’s become the protocol for new Vampire Weekend albums.

It started with Contra. When that one dropped, my good friend Tex came over (he’d heard the album all the way through already, whereas Mrs. YHT and I had only heard a few songs), he put a burned CD into our DVD player (I can’t believe how quaint that seems — it was only 2010, for crying out loud) and we had ourselves a good ol’ fashioned listening party. We talked about what we liked about it, got all jazzed up… it was awesome. So awesome that, when MVOTC hit the interweb, I couldn’t wait to get the gang back together. Knowing that we’d get to compare notes then — and that the less I said in advance, the closer I could get to recreating the atmosphere of excitement and discovery that made that first listening party so special — I felt fine sitting on the sidelines.

So I suppose this is me hopping off the bench and running onto the field just long enough to say that Modern Vampires of the City is my favorite album of 2013.

If by some miracle you’re still reading, thank you so much for following along. I promise to keep it under 3,000 words next year. As a bonus, you can scroll down a bit to see the albums I ranked 11-25 when I submitted my Top 25 to rvamag.com. There’s some dynamite stuff on that list, so I encourage you to get to know any unfamiliar faces.

See y’all in 2014!

Vampire Weekend — “Diane Young” [Spotify/iTunes]

Next 15:

11. Villagers — {Awayland}
12. Arcade Fire — Reflektor
13. Daniel Bachman — Jesus I’m A Sinner
14. No BS! Brass Band — RVA ALL Day
15. Justin Timberlake — The 20/20 Experience
16. Todd Herrington — Things
17. James Blake — Overgrown
18. The Most Americans — The Most Americans
19. Matuto — The Devil and the Diamond
20. The Snowy Owls — Summer
21. Oneohtrix Point Never — R Plus Seven
22. Positive No — Via Florum
23. Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr — The Speed of Things
24. Czar — No One Is Alone If No One Is Alive
25. Goldrush — Greatest Hits

1 Comment

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One response to “Top 10 Albums of 2013

  1. I have to say I’m slightly surprised that we only have one thing in common on our list (Yeezus). Or make it 1.5 as I consider the new Matt White material to be an EP and included it in my “best of the rest of.”). But I suppose that’s what makes life interesting! Here’s to more great music (and music writing) in 2014.

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