MAGNET’s Top 25 Albums Of 2013

25. Phosphorescent | Muchacho (Dead Oceans)
PhosphorescentIt took Jason Molina all of three days to reincarnate. Country rock’s consummate front- and only-man died on Saturday, March 16, and on the following Tuesday, Matthew Houck—the front- and only-man in Phosphorescent—released Muchacho, rising with a spiritual invocation (“Sun, Arise!”), setting with an inverted koan (“Sun’s Arising”) and in between shuffling off an immortal coil, powered by Molina’s Magnolia electricity (on storm-gathering center “A New Anhedonia” and “The Quotidian Beasts”), but sighing its own Songs: Ohia. When his Brooklyn existence began to crumble in 2012, the country rocker from Here’s To Taking It Easy fled to the remote coast of Tulum, Mexico, and this is him taking it hard: “waking each morning, babe, aching and ornery, babe”—or, as Molina would say, putting a new address on the same old loneliness. Those opening and closing sun salutations, which tie up the album in glittering synth arpeggios and gospel-choir bows, wrap a record that’s baptized in sorrow, let-loose grooves “Ride On/Right On” and “A Charm/A Blade” notwithstanding. Houck’s patched soul wears thinnest on Newtonian bookends “Song For Zula” and “Down To Go,” a faded-suede saddle that’s his cross to bear. —Noah Bonaparte Pais

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24. Haim | Days Are Gone (Polydor)
HaimChances are you have a strong opinion about Haim. Merely seeing the band’s debut album included on this list likely elicited some reaction from you. Whether that reaction was one of excitement or dismissal, there’s no denying how quickly these three sisters captured the world’s attention. Anchored by a handful of instantly familiar singles, Days Are Gone has one foot in the past and one in the present. Sure, you could draw direct lines between some of Haim’s tricks and those of pop/rock acts of yore, but the sisters take those classic ideas and give them all a fresh coat and swift kick. “Falling” twists a jittery guitar line into the foundation for a career’s worth of hooks. Mellow moments like “Honey & I” glide with an easy amble, but Haim is anything but syrupy. In concert, the core trio leaps from instrument to instrument, often resulting in each sister commandeering her own drum set. While Days suspends that particular kind of dynamism in the name of coherence, playfulness still underscores the LP. The year-long buildup of surrounding hype set the brass ring at an almost unreasonably lofty level for Haim. Unfazed, the sisters coolly delivered a slice of retro-contemporary sounds, capturing a moment where few influences are off-limits. By fusing the hip, the unhip and the unheard of, Haim has created a monster. —Eric Schuman

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23. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds | Push The Sky Away (Bad Seed Ltd.)
NickCaveFor decades, Nick Cave has cultivated an image as an archaic hellfire preacher, riddling his music with biblical allusions and apocalyptic imagery, conflating sacred and sexual passions, ratcheting his songs up in intensity verse after verse. That’s still true, but the graceful and thoughtful Push The Sky Away also includes one of the most weirdly prescient tracks of 2013. A song that alludes to Lucifer, Robert Johnson and the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination contains a verse that begins “Hannah Montana does the African Savannah” and moves to “Miley Cyrus floats in a swimming pool in Toluca Lake”—which now seems a bizarre foreshadowing of Cyrus’ twerking controversy, which some saw as a pop-cultural apocalypse. The song is “Higgs Boson Blues,” named for the particle discovered by British physicist Peter Higgs, who, coincidentally, later won this year’s Nobel Prize for physics. Coincidences aside, with their randy rock ‘n’ roll side-project Grinderman in mothballs, Cave and his Bad Seeds use Push The Sky Away to explore both earthly lust and ethereal love, from the vulgar “Mermaids” to the sorrowful, beautiful “Wide Lovely Eyes.” It’s an album full of elegance and humor, wisdom and passion; it’s about not going gently into that good night, about kicking against the pricks of age and unfulfilled desires, about—as he sings in the title track—rock ‘n’ roll that “gets right down to your soul.” —Steve Klinge

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22. Eleanor Friedberger | Personal Record (Merge)
EleanorFriedbergerOn the cover of this, her second solo album, Eleanor Friedberger is seen from above in mid-swim, surrounded by placid, deep blue waters. It’s an apropos photograph for a number of reasons. For one, it represents Friedberger confidently striking out on her own, after 11 years in the Fiery Furnaces with her brother Matthew. The image also captures the album’s sound. Personal Record is filled with bright, clean guitars and electric pianos, clipped, confident rhythms and Friedberger’s clear, unaffected vocals. It’s as invigorating as a few laps in the pool. At times, the LP seems to recall both the stormy, radio-ready era of Fleetwood Mac (“You’ll Never Know Me”) and the urban cool of early Talking Heads (“Stare At The Sun”). And the head-bopping “She’s A Mirror” is one of the year’s most irresistibly infectious tracks. Friedberger wrote the album’s songs with author/musician Wesley Stace (a.k.a., the former John Wesley Harding), and their collaboration works splendidly. While the Furnaces could often be dauntingly complex and impenetrable, Personal Record contains 12 songs of intoxicating pop, each packed with smart hooks and even smarter lyrics. The end result is an album that’s wonderfully bookish yet heartfelt, accessible yet brainy. —Michael Pelusi

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21. Dr. Dog | B-Room (Anti-)
DrDogLet’s skip the obligatory list of Dr. Dog’s musical influences and just declare that, seven albums into their career, the scruffians from Philadelphia sound exactly like Dr. Dog. Many really good LPs bring a little insight and perspective to your world. B-Room, like a couple of its predecessors, is one of those remarkable albums that invite you into an alternate world. It’s a mysterious place where Scott McMicken wonders if love can last and marvels at someone who’s “always leaving, but you’re never gone,” and where Toby Leaman can growl soulfully about following that “Distant Light” and never having had a broken heart. But it’s the music that makes you feel like you snuck into a room full of friends sitting around trading licks and secrets. This is an agile band that honors the groove. The rhythm section of bassist Leaman, drummer Eric Slick and guitarist Frank McElroy plays like one six-armed man. Zach Miller and Dmitri Manos provide keys, banjo and that fantastically unhinged violin on “Phenomenon.” A musician I like and respect a lot told me once that two-songwriter bands—from the Beatles through Uncle Tupelo and beyond—could not survive. Dr. Dog proves they can thrive. Thank Dog for that. —Phil Sheridan

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20. Bill Callahan | Dream River (Drag City)
BillCallahanThe phrase “less is more” aptly describes Bill Callahan’s songwriting philosophy. His quiet, restrained vocals and simple, linear melodies demand your attention with arrangements that make use of repeated phrases in order to lull you into a false sense of security—or maybe insecurity, because nothing Callahan writes or sings is exactly straightforward. The songs on Dream River, like those on his other albums, are full of images that evoke the challenges of everyday life using contradictory images: “Looking out a window that isn’t there”; “We call it spring though things are dying”; “The blinding lights of the kingdom can make you weep.” Callahan’s voice may be flat and seemingly unemotional, but you can feel the ghost of a smile in it now and then. He sounds both despondent and hopeful here, while in the background there’s a bit of tooth-grinding guitar shredding, touches of sneaky percussion and lilting flute accents, perhaps signifying the noises the unconscious mind throws our way to distract us when we’re grappling with the dilemmas of romance and mortality. Like the images of water that run through Dream River, the surface of the album may be placid; but beneath that, there’s a gripping riptide that will pull anyone who surrenders to it into a mysterious world of wonder. —j. poet

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19. Vampire Weekend | Modern Vampires Of The City (XL)
VampireWeekendLast January, I would’ve politely demurred if someone told me Vampire Weekend—those overeducated, J. Crew-modeling, Afropop co-opting purveyors of twee (or so the band’s detractors tend to generalize)—would release the richest, most timeless collection of pop in 2013. The concept of timelessness is important: Perhaps unfairly, Vampire Weekend initially struck its haters as the antithesis of timeless, just another buzzy act that would rise and fall before we finished our morning commutes. Instead, the quartet ignored the cynics, kept growing, and now (still early in its career), Vampire Weekend has quietly established itself at the pinnacle of the increasingly blurred mainstream/indie zeitgeist. Modern Vampires Of The City’s appeals are endless, unfolding with panoramic grace that rewards repeated listens. Its production—heavy on piano, synths, twangy bass and choral elements, all spearheaded by multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij—blossoms like an intricate floral cocktail, each element complementing the next, boldly and with nuance. Singer Ezra Koenig seals the experience tight, wrestling with what it means to find and hold onto belief—in people, authority figures, God—as we grow older. Indeed, the members of Vampire Weekend are concerned with time and how we respond to it, not how we respond to them. —Ryan Burleson

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18. Pissed Jeans | Honeys  (Sub Pop)
PissedJeansNothing is sacred on this quartet’s fourth full-length; everything is profane. Like David Yow, Pissed Jeans frontman Matthew Korvette is 100 percent id, but his misanthropy has reached full bore with Honeys. On “Cafeteria Food,” Korvette—who toils in a dreary nine-to-five as an insurance claims adjuster in real life—vividly dissects office politics and skewers associates shaken by the death of a co-worker they never knew: “You died/And I feel like I won the Super Bowl.” Human kindness is similarly absent on a pair of tracks (“Romanticize Me” and “You’re Different (In Person)”) about the laws of attraction. Korvette’s deranged lyrics and delirious phrasings are the undeniable focal point of the band, but Honeys reels you in with its arrangements. When they’re not presenting themselves as a new millennial update on the Jesus Lizard, Pissed Jeans studiously riffs on the Germs catalogue with amazingly catchy choruses (“Bathroom Laughter” and “Cathouse”). Guitarist Bradley Fry dominates “Male Gaze” with his angular lines, and the entire band plunges off the deep end with fuzzy, funky distortion on “Loubs.” Pissed Jeans puts it all out there so you don’t have to think it, leaving ample time for the inevitable spiritual cleanse. —Nick Green

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17. Wesley Stace | Self-Titled (Yep Roc)
WesleyStaceNow comfortably settled in Philadelphia with a wife and kids, the music-biz veteran (17 albums in 25 years) formerly known as John Wesley Harding eschews the sports car commonly associated with midlife crisis for an enthralling, chamber-pop record cut under his birth name, Wesley Stace. True to his recent literary triumphs (three critically acclaimed novels), Stace’s Self-Titled exhumes amorous adventures long buried in his past. Born in England, he’s lived in New York, Seattle and San Francisco, and it’s rumored he’s been charged extra freight when movers crate up his little black book of names and phone numbers. “Giving up that girl was like kicking heroin,” he warbles, shivering like a cold turkey on “The Dealer’s Daughter.” A schoolboy gets a kiss from the coolest girl in town by pretending he loves Jimi Hendrix on “A Canterbury Kiss.” Then again, “Goodbye Jane” portrays our hero as a home-wrecker: “I could have taken you away from all of this/Your home, your handsome husband with just a kiss.” But the joyful “We Will Always Have New York” finds Stace and his heartthrob discovering Gotham with as much bliss as that classic American ballad: “We’ll have Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, too.” —Jud Cost

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16. Kurt Vile | Wakin On A Pretty Daze (Matador)
KurtVileFrom surreal space jams to sublime lo-fi ballads and straightaway rockers, Kurt Vile has covered an impressive amount of territory in the past decade of recording. His fifth studio outing not only sums it up neatly in one double LP; it makes the Philadelphia iconoclast’s experimental tendencies more accessible than ever. Skittery kraut rhythms become total pop earworms on “Air Bud” and “Was All Talk,” while the quasi-title track maintains a gentle grip with nearly 10 minutes of bobbing-and-weaving guitar solos. Then, of course, there’s “KV Crimes,” a gnarly ’90s-style anthem with a fist-pumping refrain. It’s stylistically adventurous and totally delivers on its ambitions, but Wakin On A Pretty Daze also boasts some of Vile’s most direct lyrics. He sings about growing up into parenthood on the reflective “Too Hard,” and wrestles with public perceptions on “Shame Chamber.” There’s still an air of mystique about it all, but no longer is the songwriter hiding between the abstract symbols and metaphors that defined his early work. With Wakin On A Pretty Daze, Vile emerges both candid and confident, lifting the veil to show an artist in top form who strives for bigger things still. —John Vettese

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15. Polvo | Siberia (Merge)
PolvoPolvo is the sole proprietor of an indie-rock extension so special that it renders dignified, powerful and carefully chosen superlative language insulting, the most exalted praise insufficient—and everything else misguided or wrong. That statement’s tense—clarified as “present” for the scary people out there—is neither writer nor editorial error. That means that, in addition to the four full-lengths, two EPs and five seven-inches Polvo released from 1990 to 1997, it applies to the two full-lengths and two seven-inches (amazing b-sides!) released since the band reformed in 2008 in response to an ATP invitation. Yes, Polvo shares the same reformation benefactor with a growing number of also-exhumed ’80s/’90s indie-rock representatives, but that’s where all similarities end, and they ended quickly with the appearance of the band’s blindsiding 2009 masterpiece of new material, In Prism. But it was Siberia that really put Polvo in an elite indie-rock subgenre. Siberia showed that In Prism didn’t just roll into town as a Trojan Horse mind-blower before unloading Polvo’s follow-up succession of shit, but that the entertaining of such a notion (based on how a few other great bands have handled themselves post-reformation) is something to be deeply ashamed of. —Andrew Earles

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14. Guided By Voices | English Little League (GBV, Inc.)
GBVSongwriting is a compulsion for Bob Pollard—it’s right there in his band’s name. And for all the unnecessary ink spilled regarding the sheer number of tunes Pollard pens, what’s really remarkable and unexplainable—though not exactly newsworthy—is just how accomplished he is at his craft. Take the stunning “Send To Celeste (And The Cosmic Athletes)” from English Little League, Guided By Voices’ only 2013 LP. (At least one effort, Motivational Jumpsuit, is planned for 2014.) It oozes triumphant mid-tempo melancholy while searing its insistent melody into your subconscious: “Send to Celeste, give it all of your best/You were heads above the rest from the start.” Pollard’s been in this racket, officially anyway, since 1986’s Forever Since Breakfast, and he can still conjure a “Send To Celeste”? Ridiculous. Focusing on one track isn’t meant to sell the rest of English Little League short, as there’s plenty to enjoy: the sorrowful “Trashcan Full Of Nails,” the poppy “Xeno Pariah,” the ’60s groove of “W/ Glass In Foot” and guitarist Tobin Sprout’s contributions, possibly his strongest overall since GBV’s resurrection. “Send To Celeste” is merely the most obvious example of Pollard’s singular ability to inspire you to raise a fist while you cry in your beer. —Matt Hickey

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13. Chvrches | The Bones Of What You Believe (Glassnote)
ChvrchesChvrches is, in some ways, this year’s quintessential blog band: The Scottish electro-pop trio chose a name spelled for search-engine ease; it posted with little fanfare or background information a few early songs recorded in its basement studio, and let the buzz grow from there; that buzz let the band win tour slots with big names (Depeche Mode) and on summer festivals. By the time Chvrches released their debut album in the fall, they were already well-established. But the truth is more complex. This is a seasoned band of veterans: Iain Cook and Martin Doherty are alums of post-rock experimenters Aereogramme and shoegazers the Twilight Sad, respectively, and singer Lauren Mayberry has been in Glasgow bands since her teens, including while she was working on law and journalism degrees. And the band’s smarts show: Beneath the immediate surface pleasures of the bright, shiny synth-pop of “The Mother We Share,” “Lies” and “Recover” are knowing, often biting lyrics, fascinating layers of intertwining melody lines and carefully constructed climaxes. The Bones Of What You Believe plays like a collection of hit singles. Chvrches mine a territory shared by M83 and Robyn: pure synth-pop for now people that foregrounds immediate pleasure, but doesn’t shy from cerebral depth. —Steve Klinge

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12. My Bloody Valentine | m b v (m b v)
MyBloodyValentineIn 1988, My Bloody Valentine defined and launched the proper shoegaze movement with the You Made Me Realise EP, “Feed Me With Your Kiss” single and a fantastic ass-kicker of a full-length (Isn’t Anything). Then it was 1991’s Loveless, an album that remains untouchable in terms of influence, innovation and the general magnitude of its long-term footprint on future musicians. This bar-setting masterpiece encouraged MBV’s contemporaries and immediate followers, many of which punctuated underground rock’s next two years with their own documents of greatness. As every MBV fan in the MAGNET readership already knows, the release of m b v was a golden success for both band and the legions of anticipating fans. If you love what MBV released during its aforementioned salad days, then you already know and love this album. Not only does it challenge the current guitar-adverse scene of underground delusions and arrogantly oblivious dismissal of distant-to-recent musical history, but it is a perfect follow-up to Loveless. And finally, m b v is exceptional enough to justify an enforced moratorium on picking apart Kevin Shields’ failure to meet a succession of announced release times over the last couple of decades; a cheap, lazy and wholly unjustified path of least resistance from a music press that already owes him a mass apology for linking his past creations to morons’ folly like “nugaze” or “chillwave.” —Andrew Earles

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11. Savages | Silence Yourself (Matador/Pop Noire)
SavagesThe 2013 album with the most distinguished identity goes to Silence Yourself, which is ironic seeing as how it was nearly impossible to read about Savages without seeing mandatory comparisons to famed U.K. post-punk/proto-goth bands. (The Siouxsie comparisons were plenty accurate because the music—not the genitalia—warranted it.) Honestly, though, if all listeners got out of this raw, combustible cluster of songs was the ability to get his or her knickers in a knot over the topic of reductiveness in rock, then those listeners are idiots—and they missed out on a really great album. The music is awesomely, recklessly danceable, with muscular bass and drums that anxiously dart and throb and get skewered by cantankerous guitars. Amid geyser-like eruptions of feedback and cymbal crashes, the deceptively simple lyrics become proclamations that turn the songs into face-offs, imploring us to rush against the grain of self-imposed convention and hunt a standalone existence with balls-out, teeth-bared assuredness. The brash, forward-march momentum sheds one brittle emotion after the next, displaying an inexorable need to strip down deep enough to hit bone. Silence that nagging doubt and annoying resistance, and push on. We are all savages. —Jeanne Fury

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10. Foxygen | We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic (Jagjaguwar)
FoxygenMost nights I’m up late worrying about Foxygen. They are like the inscrutable, heartbreaking, scene-stealing, indie darling little brothers I never had. They are so young and reckless, and this album is so goddamn great, so elegantly crafted and impeccably stylized—like if Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums was a wonderfully twee baroque indie-rock album instead of a wonderfully twee baroque indie film—that I worry that they’re going to blow it. I worry about them doing something stupid, like breaking up the band because after a year of non-stop touring and living inside each other’s pockets, they can’t stand the smell of each other’s farts any more. I worry about them constantly runnin’ with the devil and flirting with disaster on the road. I worry about the live show always being such a hot mess. I worry that the fact that they are unable or unwilling to replicate the album live means producer Richard Swift deserves far more Svengali cred than we’ve been led to believe. I worry that all the deathless Stones/Kinks/Zombies pastiche that bejewels this album was actually Swift Geppetto-ing their Pinocchio. I worry about them getting mixed up with the wrong crowd and making an ’80s synth record next time, like they have threatened to do. I worry that so many people, myself included, have told them how great they are that they are actually starting to believe it. I worry that I’m going to have to sit them down and tell them there’s no need to be an asshole, you’re not in Brooklyn anymore. —Jonathan Valania

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9. David Yow | Tonight You Look Like A Spider (Joyful Noise)
DavidYowAs the singer of noise/punk bands Scratch Acid and the Jesus Lizard in the late ’80s and early ’90s, David Yow earned notoriety for feral, rancorous shouting and stage-diving, cock-wagging performances. That said, Yow himself is not much of a musician—he readily admits it. But perhaps more than any of his musical contemporaries, he is an artist, something Tonight You Look Like A Spider readily confirms. Before you snort at such a grandiose proclamation, know that Yow is actually a working artist, and has been for decades. So, it’s very fitting that his solo debut is more like a sound installation than a collection of songs. Tonight sees Yow utilizing a new medium for his sublimely deranged inclinations. As unhinged as the guy’s performances were when fronting bands, solo Yow is a thoughtful composer: creepy and beyond screwy, but also astoundingly engaging. Created with Pro Tools, the self-produced tracks are meant to disturb the peace, not always using obvious tactics. Sure, sometimes the squall is confrontational and abrasive, like he’s humping us in the face while wearing a cast-iron codpiece; but other times, we float amid disorienting fog and slurry whispers. And though the infamous singer’s voice is barely present, his mark is everywhere. —Jeanne Fury

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8. Daft Punk | Random Access Memories (Daft Life/Columbia)
DaftPunkClick. Click. Click. Click. And like Michel turning to the camera in Breathless or Bugs Bunny whispering to Gossamer in Hair-Raising Hare, Daft Punk kicks down the fourth wall of electronic music with a simple gesture. With nine bars of the simplest beat one could imagine (just a click, click, click, click), the French duo exposes the whole thing for the sham that it is, exposes the fundamental genius at its very roots. “Giorgio By Moroder” may be the deepest, densest track on an otherwise party-ready record, the year’s most obtuse journey into retro territory; not a lot of folks trot out living legends as guest lecturers, but it certainly is the most potent. The modular-synth-swathed jazz/funk connects the dots between the earliest disco experiments, the birth of hip hop, and the mechanized future of techno and beyond. And while “Get Lucky” will probably live on for generations at weddings and proms, when future archaeologists try to piece together how and why we primitive humans created music with funny little boxes, “Giorgio By Moroder” will stand as their Rosetta Stone. —Sean L. Maloney

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7. Superchunk | I Hate Music (Merge)
SuperchunkFew bands improve with age, especially those with indie-punk roots. (Have you heard that new Pixies EP?) And then there’s Superchunk. Longtime fans and slack motherfuckers alike may howl at this assertion, but with 2010’s Majesty Shredding and now I Hate Music, Superchunk has made the best records of its 25-year career. Yes, the songs are a bit more polished these days, but the band has sacrificed none of the scrappiness and exuberance that made its early music such a kick. I Hate Music also reveals lead yelper Mac McCaughan digging deeper, with lyrics informed by growing older and the death of a close friend, often in startling contrast to the music’s sunny exterior. “Everything the dead don’t know, piles up like magazines, overflows,” he sings on “Overflows,” a song culminating in a repeated plea, “Let’s go, don’t let go, let go!” “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo” sees a similar juxtaposition, declaring, “I hate music, what is it worth?/Can’t bring anyone back to this earth,” before reminiscing about a summer car ride over a tune that’s positively life-affirming. Improbably, these Benjamin Buttons of indie rock seem to grow more energized with the passage of time. —Matt Ryan

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6. Deerhunter | Monomania  (4AD)
DeerhunterIt’s something like a musical milestone: When a band reaches a certain age, it will inevitably revisit its earliest output and decide to get back to where it once belonged. That would be a fine explanation behind the raw and unpolished sounds to be found on Monomania. Thing is, Deerhunter has never sounded like this before. Sleazy proto-punk imagery is referenced to the point of obsession throughout the album’s impossibly catchy dozen songs. Flickering neon, switchblade knives, busted car windows; you can practically hear the Deerhunter of Halcyon Digest and Microcastle getting beaten up in a back alley until the cops show up. Bradford Cox babbles on “Leather Jacket II” and sneers on “Dream Captain,” his voice distorted into an incomprehensible yowl. For all its aggression, Monomania boasts one of the finest track sequences of the year. It’s a lost art, really, to arrange a record so it ebbs and flows the way Monomania does. From the delicate “T.H.M.” to the buzzsaw title track, dramatic turns are on Cox and Co.’s minds. Though they’re posing like greasers and juvenile-hall dropouts this time around, the members of Deerhunter remain masters of melody and depth. They’re clever enough to play against their own songs’ primitive sounds to showcase mature, revealing lyrics and musical ideas. Monomania might have landed like a “zag” where longtime fans expected a “zig,” but its sonic aesthetic only serves to reinforce Deerhunter’s position as one of the most unpredictably creative bands around. —Eric Schuman

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5. The National | Trouble Will Find Me (4AD)
NationalBryan Devendorf has always been the National’s most overlooked attribute. On Trouble Will Find Me, the band’s excellent sixth album, it is impossible to ignore the role of the drummer and his bass-playing brother Scott. They are the rock-solid foundation for everything the group’s other brothers, producers Aaron and Bryce Dessner, layer on top to build the mood for each song—and the National is unparalleled in creating an atmosphere you can feel and breathe before a single word has been sung. It is only then, with the stage set and the lighting right, that Matt Berninger can step forward and deliver his cryptic but emotionally true soliloquies. Berninger has always been an unreliable narrator, but like the protagonist of every powerful novel, you like and identify enough with him to see the uncertainty undercutting his boasts and the hopefulness underlying his despair. You get the sense, too, that real life has taken a toll on Berninger, adding depth and resonance to writing that has always been smart and interesting. With the film Mistaken For Strangers, the National entered the phase of self-mythologizing that is all too common at this point in a band’s career. What is less common, but most welcome, is an album worthy of the myth. —Phil Sheridan

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4. Atoms For Peace | Amok (XL)
AtomsForPeaceSolo album? Supergroup? Cyborg dance music beamed back from some point in the not-so-distant future? Amok feels like all of these things. There’s no denying its kinship with Thom Yorke’s first solo effort, The Eraser—as if to drive that point home, Atoms For Peace is both the name of this band and the title of a track from that earlier work. But where the song was haunting and sparse, Amok is warmly layered and full of life. Note the karate-chop synths and winding bass line on “Dropped,” or “Reverse Running,” which grooves harder than Yorke usually allows himself to. Credit collaborators Flea and Joey Waronker for making things interesting on the bottom end and providing new inspiration. Yorke has admitted the songwriting process consisted of getting wasted and overdosing on Fela Kuti at Flea’s house, and though you’ll never mistake this as a dancehall banger or an Afrobeat homage, the influence is there among the world rhythms of “Stuck Together Pieces” and “Unless.” Ever since Radiohead gave up on being the greatest guitar-rock band in the world and never looked back, Yorke’s sound, no matter who’s flanking him, insists on blurring the lines between man and machine. The same holds true here, though with just enough soul to remind you there’s flesh and blood beneath all the wiring. —Richard Rys

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3. Yo La Tengo | Fade (Matador)
YoLaTengoOver 30 years, Yo La Tengo has made music for HIV and stroke survivors, freeform radio stations and LGBT public schools; for feature films and nature documentaries; for shits and for giggles. Ira, Georgia and James are not afraid of you and they will beat your ass, but they’ve also shown themselves to be among the most compassionate, empathetic indie-rockers on the planet. For their 13th LP, they made something for them, about them—something freewheeling, delicate, aged, unsettled, proven, fearless and comfortable as a Jersey T. It’s more sugar than blood, sure, but that practically guarantees their 14th will lead off with a 14-minute haymaker. In the meantime, pig out on sweets. Ponder the charged, peaceful, YLT-defining homophone of “Ohm.” Question whether “Is That Enough” is first kiss or last. Let “Stupid Things” into your head and watch it stay for a month. Figure out “The Point Of It.” (Spoiler: “Find the comfort in my life/Before it disappears.”) It’s tough to imagine life without this band, the most unassuming great act of its generation, and so Yo La Tengo does it for you. Lit up by quiet symphonic fireworks, “Before We Run” thankfully sounds not like the end, but a beginning. —Noah Bonaparte Pais

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2. Neko Case | The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (Anti-)
NekoCaseCalling Neko Case’s drama-packed sixth album her best yet might be a bit of stretch. (We’re still partial to 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood.) But it’s certainly the most representative of her multiple creative personalities. There’s the power-pop-propelled feminist firebrand (“Man”), the damaged, regressive little girl lost (“Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” “Afraid”), the relentlessly honest torch singer (“Wild Creatures,” “Local Girl”), the mortally wounded romantic (“Night Still Comes,” “Calling Cards”) and the fiercely independent, nobody-gets-me loner (“I’m From Nowhere”). In less tasteful hands, the soaring “City Swans” could’ve been a stadium-size anthem, and the album-closing “Ragtime” finds room for a horn section and makes it count. With this spot-on distillation of everything she’s been up to for the past 16 years, Case lays it all out there, assuming perhaps that she’s reached some imaginary tipping point in her career. (She is 43, after all.) If anything, though, life sounds more interesting than ever for The Worse Things Get’s cantankerous protagonist. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. —Hobart Rowland

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1. Okkervil River | The Silver Gymnasium (ATO)
OkkervilRiverWill Sheff has always written and sung with great empathy, finding the humanity in not always sympathetic characters—from philandering spouses to thrill killers to poets in mid-suicide. On Okkervil River’s seventh and finest album, Sheff focuses that empathetic eye on himself and his hometown. The 11 songs explore the comforts and unreliability of memory, the way our experiences and relationships take on the quality of mythology (at least in our own minds), and the simple fact that “We can never go back, we can only remember” our pasts—as Sheff sings on “Down Down The Deep River.” Sounds heavy, and it is. But it is all conveyed in beautiful, life-affirming, just plain enjoyable songs. With the estimable John Agnello producing, Sheff’s wordsmithery is delivered with big hooks, sing-along choruses and a million little musical treats: the piano that carries opening track “It Was My Season,” the horns and harmonica that weave through the breathtaking “Stay Young,” the tight rhythm section throughout. But it’s Sheff’s from-the-heart words and singing that carry the album. A quick check of a map confirms that Meriden, N.H., exists. But it’s the town and the people in Sheff’s memory that are worth spending time with. —Phil Sheridan

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